For the first time we were rejoicing that Africa had been left behind in a global movement, and therefore we may have missed the highly infectious nature and rapid spread of the new coronavirus that triggered the COVID-19 pandemic and its crippling effects on the world since January 2020.

Globally, the number of confirmed cases now stands at nearly two and half million. Whilst for several weeks the epicenter remained in Asia, and more recently in Europe, Africa has witnessed an increase in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 steadily rising from 9 cases two months ago, to about 26,000 as of 23 April 2020, according to the African Union. Despite having been less affected than by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002-2003, Africa is currently feared to be the continent that could be hit the hardest by the new corona virus. Without the implementation of a raft of adequate measures, Africa will be hit by a double jeopardy with a heavy toll on the continent; a health and humanitarian disaster on the one hand, and an unprecedented economic shock on the other hand.

Source: WHO

An initially optimistic outlook, subsequently reviewed

The continent, having maintained a steady economic growth rate of 3.4% in 2019, had an optimistic economic outlook which was projected to rise to 3.9% and 4.1% respectively in 2020 and 2021. However, judging from the exponential spread of the virus, scientific projections, and the negative humanitarian, social and economic impacts witnessed in heavily affected Asian and European countries, Africa will likely not be spared the horrors of the pandemic. And should this prediction come true, the health, humanitarian and economic impacts would be dire for the ill-prepared continent.

A structural set- up that is conducive to a health disaster

Several African countries including Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, South Africa and dozens of others have adopted measures such as quarantine, semi-confinement, curfews, partial testing and international travel restrictions, against the backdrop of the lessons learned not only in Asia and in Europe, but also in Africa, particularly after the Ebola epidemic.

While it is important to note the timely intervention by leaders to combat the pandemic, it is equally important to highlight the ineffectiveness of most of the measures taken in some countries and the unpreparedness of African states to handle a high prevalence of COVID-19 cases. The confinement measures imposed on the people without prior consultation are unrealistic in view of the social setup, particularly in West Africa where housing is still communal (shared compounds

in some cases), there are large slums, and where attendance of places of worship such as churches and mosques is the highest in the world. This reality is compounded by high poverty levels where the majority work in the informal sector and live from hand to mouth.

Moreover, most African countries do not have the resources (technical and financial) to respond to a pandemic of the magnitude currently being witnessed in Europe or Asia. Some countries are either grappling with complex management of severe emergencies or just emerging from them. These include acute food shortages, the Ebola epidemic, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and measles, and are already wreaking havoc on inherently fragile or less advanced health systems. Due to the high incidence of these endemic infectious diseases and the high occurrence of anaemia and malnutrition on the continent, large sections of the population despite being younger than the global population, have weakened immune systems with the potential to exacerbate the incidence and severity of COVID-19. Given the poor access to healthcare, and with overstretched hospital facilities, Africa’s capacity to manage the COVID-19 pandemic would be severely reduced.

If we compare the mixed results obtained in Europe or in Asia which have more advanced health systems with the state of the health systems in Africa, we can easily appreciate the potentially disastrous impact that COVID-19 would have on the continent if the virus is not contained in time, especially considering that 9 out of the 15 countries considered most-at-risk by Care International are in Africa.

Moreover, the prices of pharmaceutical products are expected to increase and become less available to Africans since they are mainly imported from Europe and other countries affected by the pandemic. Furthermore, given that about two thirds of African countries are net importers of basic food commodities, the said shortages could seriously impact food availability and security.

An economic configuration that is conducive to recession

Irrespective of the collateral damage of trade wars between the US and China on African economies, the previously predicted upward economic growth for 2020-2021 will most likely be adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming global recession.

In terms of risk assessment for African economies which are very heterogeneous, the impact will therefore vary from one country to another. This is mainly the case for countries that rely heavily on trade and whose economies are vulnerable to external shocks, and as such their revenues are highly correlated with fluctuations in commodity prices.

Given the interconnectedness of the economies that are highly affected by COVID-19 such as the EU, Asia and the USA with Africa, disruptions in global supply chains will inevitably have direct or indirect repercussions on the latter’s economic growth. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 90% of raw material exports (copper and cobalt) are to China. In Southern Sudan, Angola and Eritrea, exports to China in 2019 represented about 95%, 61% and 58% respectively. A decline in Chinese demand, the main epicenter of the epidemic but also Africa’s largest trading partner, will significantly reduce the revenues of these countries.

Graphic source: UNECA

Oil-exporting countries will be even more affected especially given that China is the largest importer on the one hand, and oil prices are already at their lowest level and continuing to fall on the other hand. It is estimated that a 5% drop in oil prices over one year could result in a loss of USD 4 billion (CHF 3.89 billion) in export earnings for sub-Saharan Africa. For example, Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, is highly dependent on black gold, which accounts for more than 90% of her exports and half of her revenues. Her GDP is expected to grow by only 2% in 2020, instead of the 2.5% initially projected. UNECA currently estimates $65 billion in lost revenue for these countries including Angola and Algeria.

In terms of financial flows, the measures taken to combat the virus, including confinement, as well as the resultant economic slowdown or the current recession in Western countries, will lead to the decline in tourism and remittances to Africa. The figures below are useful in further assessing the impact of diminished financial flows on the continent’s economies: in 2019 remittances exceeded 5% contribution to the GDP of 13 African countries surpassing 12% in Comoros, the Gambia and Liberia, and even 23% in Lesotho.

With respect to tourism, the second major contributor of growth for African economies, the sector accounted for 8.5% (or 194.2 billion dollars) of GDP in 2018 with more than 67 million tourist arrivals. The three countries that received most tourists, namely South Africa, Egypt and Morocco, are also the most affected by the pandemic. At the continental level, more than 24 million jobs are at stake in this sector.

The current and more pessimistic projections than those announced during the 2008 global economic crisis, justifiably point to a 50 percent drop in Africa’s GDP, with a decline from 3.2% to 1.8% in economic growth. The resulting unsustainable fiscal pressure and debt will subsequently be disastrous for long-term socio-economic development in our countries.


Graph source: UNECA

Accessible solutions

Whilst the situation depicted in this article is pessimistic, there are several factors that make a case for some optimism. Since the pandemic has not yet affected Africa to the same extent as Europe or Asia, African leaders should leap forward and seize the existing window of opportunity to:


  1. Contain the spread of the virus through efficient measures that take into account local realities. Total confinement policies must be reviewed, while partial confinement measures should be accompanied by social and economic incentives for the people and small (or medium) enterprises.


  1. Ensure that the existing health facilities are upgraded in order to manage the pandemic and confirmed cases of COVID-19. Thus, the United Nations’ call for international cooperation to help African countries could not come at a better time as it is also in the interest of high income countries to respond to it.


  1. Cushion the economic impact of the crisis, which is not merely a health crisis, but also an economic one with high risks of exacerbating humanitarian needs.


The response to Africa’s COVID-19 plight must be rapid and at scale. The support from International partners will be essential, but intra-African coordination will be critical in particular, in a world marked by shy global leadership and deficient rules-based global governance.


Leveraging on the potential of intra-African trade and the provisions of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)will reduce the dependence of the continent on external partners.


Above all, coordination under the auspices of African Union and its Africa Joint Continental Strategy for Covid-19 outbreak as well as increased support to, and efforts from the African Union CDC will be crucial in implementing appropriate and integrated strategies for Africa to weather the storm better than other regions. After all, Africa should have already been prepared for this on the strength of its past experience.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.