Africa – the next epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic?

Africa – the next epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic?

Published Sunday, 21 June 2020 – The Brussels Times

The pandemic is much more than a global health crisis. It causes devastating social, economic and political crises, especially in developing countries where informal economy workers are particularly vulnerable to lockdown measures.

In Africa, the outbreak of coronavirus was slow in the beginning with few confirmed cases reported until March. As a continent, Africa still accounts for only about 3 % of the global total of cases. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on 10 June that the pandemic is accelerating in many countries in Africa where testing and medical resources are still extremely limited.

It took 98 days to reach 100 000 cases and only 18 days to move to 200 000 cases in Africa, according to WHO. Ten out of 54 countries are currently driving the rise in numbers, accounting for nearly 80% of all the cases. More than 70% of the deaths are taking place in only five countries: Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan.

Economically, Africa already belongs to the hardest hit continents. More than 85 percent of African workers were informally employed and informality was also the reality for the majority of people in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, according to a new UN report, The World of Work and COVID-19, published on Friday (19 June).

Their earnings in the first month of the crisis are estimated to have declined by 80 percent (60 % percent globally). The rate of relative poverty, which is defined as the proportion of workers with monthly earnings that fall below 50 percent of the median earnings in the population, is expected to increase by almost 34 percentage points globally for informal workers.

“There is a lot of talk about the need for a ‘new normal’ after this crisis,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a video message accompanying the report. “But let’s not forget that the pre-COVID-19 world was far from normal.”

“Rising inequalities, systemic gender discrimination, lack of opportunities for young people, stagnant wages, runaway climate change — none of these things were ‘normal’. The pandemic exposed tremendous shortcomings, fragilities and fault lines.”

UNDP support

The socio-economic impact of the pandemic in Africa was discussed last week (16 June) at a virtual press conference organised by the Brussels office of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). With examples from three countries – Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda – UNDP showed what it is doing to help them respond to the pandemic and to recover after the crisis.

In all three countries, UNDP is supporting the governments in different ways together with other UN organisations and donor countries.

Egypt, a country of more than 100 million inhabitants, most of them living in crowded conditions in the cities, has been harder hit by the corona virus and is currently going through a peak. The government has imposed physical distancing, including closing schools and universities, limiting gatherings in public spaces, and enforcing curfews for non-essential businesses and transportation.

On the positive side, Egypt entered the crisis in relatively good economic shape with an annual growth rate of more than 4 percent. It will be reduced now but not negative, according to the head of UNDP in Egypt. The government has put in place a macroeconomic stimulus plan that postponed loan repayment, rescheduled taxes and cut price of utilities.

Before the outbreak of the virus, DRC has had its fair share of crises and conflicts, including civil war and other infectious diseases. The corona health shock has jeopardised the functioning of its economy and led to major socioeconomic and humanitarian repercussions.

According to the head of UNDP in DRC, it could take 5 years for DRC to return to pre-crisis growth perspectives. Public revenues have declined by 50 % and the food security of millions of people is at risk. On the positive side, the government is implementing a health response plan, building on its experience in managing the Ebola crisis.

Before the crisis, Rwanda was one of the 10 fast growing countries in the world and ranked high on socio-economic indicators. But being a small landlocked country, depending on tourism and trade and with a small formal sector, it has seen a major decline in economic activities and government revenues. Economic growth is forecasted to at most 2 % this year.

Rwanda was among the first countries in Africa to impose a lockdown and has taken all the right decisions, according to the UNDP bureau chief. UNDP has supported the country to establish three new national testing laboratories and to increase the number of fully equipped ICU rooms. Belgium provided Rwanda with Africa’s first Anti-Epidemiologic Robots for symptom testing and patient care.

Lessons learned

Overall, the crisis in Africa is beyond a health crisis, said Ahunna Eziakonwa, UN Assistant Secretary General and Director of UNDP’s Bureau for Africa. “It risks reversing the flow of development aid to Africa and reducing human development, with millions of children out of school, millions of new poor and a disproportionate effect on women.”

About 20 countries in Africa are scheduled to have elections in the near future. If they were to be cancelled because of the crisis, it could lead to constitutional crises and instability, Eziakonwa warned.

“Government and good governance matters. Africa needs a new economic focus on people and SMEs. It needs to transform the informal sector, strengthen social protection and use its own resources to build up local production needed during the crisis,” she summarised the main lessons learned.

There has also been talk about debt relief for development countries. The Ethiopian prime-minister wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in the beginning of the crisis that what development countries needed the most is debt relief or debt reconstruction. European Commission President von der Leyen’s visit to Ethiopia in December 2019 was her first visit outside the EU.

Has his appeal been listened to? “Only partially, Eziakonwa replied. “There is an agreement to offer delays in debt payments but what is really needed is to review the whole debt structure.”

Is EU and its member states doing enough to help Africa recovering from the crisis? “Africa still needs development assistance but everyone is wondering if it will continue. EU supports Africa but we need to review trade policies to stimulate local entrepreneurs and domestic production. It’s also important that EU understands the need for regional integration in Africa.”

Resources have been leaking out from Africa since it was colonised by European colonial powers. “It’s also time to look at frozen resources and ill-gotten gains hidden outside Africa and stop the leakage.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times