Africa left to deal alone with the pandemic?

FILE PHOTO: A health worker checks a woman's temperature during a door-to-door testing in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Umlazi township near Durban, South Africa, April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo

Any assessment of Africa must begin with the caveat that generalizing about the continent is dangerous owing to its enormous size, dozens of countries, thousands of ethnic and linguistic groupings, diverse natural ecosystems, and divergent economies.

Nonetheless, as elsewhere, the pandemic’s short- and long-term impacts on Africa (here meaning sub-Saharan Africa) will touch every aspect of society and bring powerful and serious consequences.

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In terms of public health impacts, few observers predict anything but a difficult period for the continent, for two primary reasons.

The first is that most African countries have neither the public health systems nor the manufacturing bases to tackle the virus through robust countermeasures. Most African countries face critical shortages of hospital beds and respirators, and do not have the means to manufacture their own domestic supplies of medical items necessary to fight the pandemic.

Case Study: Nigeria

Across all scenarios, Nigeria is facing a likely economic contraction.

In the least worst-case scenario (contained outbreak), Nigeria’s GDP growth could decline from 2.5 percent to 3.4 percent in 2020—in other words, a decline of nearly six percentage points. That would represent a reduction in GDP of approximately $20 billion, with more than two-thirds of the direct impact coming from oil-price effects, given Nigeria’s status as a major oil exporter.

In scenarios in which the outbreak is not contained, Nigeria’s GDP growth rate could fall to −8.8 percent, representing a reduction in GDP of some $40 billion. The biggest driver of this loss would be a reduction in consumer spending in food and beverages, clothing, and transport.

The second reason involves Africa’s socioeconomic and geographic profile. For decades, Africa has been urbanizing faster than any region of the world, with more than 70 percent of new urbanites living in city slums. For residents of densely-packed slums (some 200 million people), social distancing and other countermeasures (handwashing with soap multiple times a day) simply are not possible. Moreover, their high poverty levels (85 percent of Africans live on less than $5.50 a day) mean that most people cannot withstand a lengthy economic standstill.

Some Reasons for Optimism

Public health experts point to some possible sources of good news among this otherwise grim prognosis.

One is that it is possible that the virus may be less transmissible in hot weather, as is the case with the flu—Africa’s hotter weather may be a reason why the virus has not spread faster in the region.

A second is African demography; the continent is the youngest in the world.

As with other world regions, the long-term question involving the global powers looks at how they will reassess their interests in engaging Africa during and after the pandemic, and what resources they will be willing to offer a continent that is going to be severely impacted by the disease.

Given China’s increased activity in Africa, how will the two biggest global powers game out their interests and presence on the continent during and after the pandemic?

Another analogy is to the Middle East: given Europe’s physical proximity to Africa plus its longstanding security and economic ties, will Europeans choose to deepen their engagement with Africa, or will Europe attempt to wall itself off from possible downside consequences of the pandemic emanating from the continent?

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