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Context

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020.[1] By 12 June 2020, 418,294 COVID-19-related deaths and 7,420,520 laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases had been registered globally. In Africa, the situation has been less acute, with 8,779 deaths and 520,373 confirmed infections in 52 countries as at the same date in June 2020.[2]

The International Monetary Fund projected in April 2020 that the world economy would contract sharply by 3 percent, and that the economy of sub-Saharan Africa would contract by 1.6 percent in 2020.[3] Furthermore, ECA has projected that, in a worst-case scenario, economic activity for Africa as a whole would contract by 2.6 percent, with negative impacts on the employment rate, and estimated that four out of five businesses in Africa would be significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.[4] The African Development Bank predicted an economic contraction for the continent of up to 3.4 percent in 2020.[5]

African countries have implemented a number of containment measures to curb the spread of the virus, including closing schools, restricting domestic and international travel, promoting the use of protective gear and hand hygiene, and imposing curfews and lockdowns.[6] These measures have disrupted tourism, trade, business operations and global supply chains.

Workers in informal sectors have seen their income drop substantially, thereby increasing poverty and deepening inequality. In addition, trade disruptions have limited government access to supplies of personal protective equipment and medical supplies such as test kits, which has set back efforts to track and stem the spread of the virus, protect front-line workers and the general public and reinforce containment measures. The pandemic has also exposed capacity constraints in African countries, such as fragile healthcare institutions and extremely limited supplies of ventilators. Moreover, declining export revenue and the need to immediately acquire medical supplies using borrowed funds have heightened the vulnerability of African countries to debt distress.

The pandemic has also created a crisis for the continent’s already fragile education systems. School closures for extended periods have resulted in lost learning time. While several African governments have put in place distance-learning systems, they have paid less attention to the needs of students pursuing vocation training and other forms of higher education. In sub-Saharan Africa, around 89 million young people between 12 and 24 years of age are out of school; in the next decade, an estimated 40 million more will drop out and face an uncertain future without adequate work and life skills.[7] If new policies and innovative approaches to education and training are not put in place, the consequences will be increased inequality in access to learning and livelihood opportunities. 

An ECA survey of COVID-19 responses across the continent underscored some enduring development challenges and structural problems, including the poor state of infrastructure, the unreliable supply and/or high cost of energy, and limited access to water and sanitation.[8] The survey also showed that countries struggle with the high cost, unreliablity and limited reach of Internet services, along with skewed patterns of trade and industrialization. Furthermore, the survey has revealed that African countries need to industrialize with a view to boosting intra-Africa trade. They also need to exploit the potential role of the fourth industrial revolution to, inter alia, innovate, manage and facilitate governance processes. The shock brought on by the pandemic has led to liquidity constraints in a number of African countries. African governments and institutions have called for a moratorium on debt repayments so that funds that would have been used for debt servicing can be redirected to the acquisition of medical supplies and personal protective equipment. The survey exposed the inefficient responses to the crisis by some countries owing to weak governance processes, deep-rooted inequality and a lack of social probity.

African countries face a number of challenges in the implementation of measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, including the inability to provide targeted services to the poorest and the most vulnerable owing to a lack of clarity regarding their places of residence. Moreover, many of those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms have chosen not to seek treatment at government-approved isolation centers in the light of the poor quality of services provided at those centers, which has increased the likelihood of infections spreading among households. Further challenges include poor distribution mechanisms and infrastructure and unreliable access to and insufficient supplies of energy and water. The situation is even more dire for people with disabilities, whose needs have often been forgotten in respect of COVID-19 containment measures, such as social distancing and self-isolation. Little has been done to maintain the health, safety, dignity and independence of persons with disabilities during the pandemic.

In cases where governments were able to mobilize financial resources, the procurement and distribution of supplies have been disrupted by systemic corruption, lack of transparency, lack of effective awareness-raising, and uncertainty in distribution of government-supplied relief goods and services.[9] Moreover, long-standing perceptions regarding corruption on the continent and the lack of transparent economic governance may have limited the willingness of donors to provide financial assistance to African countries in their response to the pandemic. The large informal sector, which dominates the employment market in most African countries, has limited the reach of stimulus measures better suited to formal employment channels. In addition, in informal settlements in urban areas, which house up to 60 percent of the urban population and whose residents are largely unregistered, governments have found it difficult to provide relief services that aim to ease lockdown-induced hardship.[10]

Remittances have long been a critical form of financing the balance of payments in African countries, accounting for half of all private capital flows into the continent. According to the World Bank, remittance flows to sub-Saharan Africa will fall by 23.1 percent to $37 billion in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19-related economic crisis.[11] 

The socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on African countries has been extensive. It is estimated that the number of people living below the poverty line will rise by 29 million.[12] The pandemic will have erased the progress made over the past six years in terms of health, education and income in Africa and across the world.[13] Promoting greater equity with respect to capacity and access to resources and technology during the recovery phase has the potential to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic and build resilience to future shocks.

 

[1] Ibid. “WHO Director General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19”. Available at  https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020.

[2] World Health Organization, (2020). “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) situation report -144”. Available at https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200612-covid-19-sitrep-144.pdf?sfvrsn=66ff9f4f_2 .

[3] International Monetary Fud (2020). “World economic outlook, April 2020: the Great Lockdown”. Available at https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020.

[4] Economic Commission for Africa (2020). “COVID-19 in Africa: protecting lives and economies”. Available at www.uneca.org/publications/covid-19-africa-protecting-lives-and-economies.

[5] African Development Bank (2020) “African economic outlook 2020 amid COVID-19: supplement”.

[6] Economic Commision for Africa (2020) “COVID-19: lockdown exit strategies for Africa”. Available at https://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/PublicationFiles/ecarprt_covidexitstrategis_eng_9may.pdf.

[7] World Bank (2020). “Youth in sub-Saharan Africa are out of school”. Available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/education/publication/out-of-school-y....

[8] Economic Commission for Africa  (2020). “COVID-19: lockdown exit strategies for Africa”.

[9] See, for example, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/ea/Ugandan-officials-arrested-for-inflating-relief-food-prices/4552908-5519676-qxf2y1/index.html; and https://www.africanews.com/2020/04/29/uganda-president-criticises-mps-for-coronavirus-payment/.

[10] United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2020). “COVID-19 response and recovery strategy for sub-Saharan Africa”.Available at https://unhabitat.org/sites/default/files/2020/04/un-habitat_covid19_response_recovery_strategy_for_africa_version_10_april_2020.pdf.

[11]    World Bank (2020). “World Bank predicts sharpest decline of remittances in recent history. Available at https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/22/world-bank-predicts-sharpest-decline-of-remittances-in-recent-history.

[12] United Nations (2020). “Policy brief: impact of COVID-19 in Africa”. Available at https://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/PublicationFiles/sg_policy_brief_on_covid-19_impact_on_africa_may_2020.pdf.

[13] United Nations Development Programme (2020). “COVID-19 and human development: assessing the crisis, envisioning the recovery”. Available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/hdp-covid.