Policy analysis

How COVID-19 has impacted work and poverty in Africa

This guest blog was written by ONE Youth Ambassador Veerle Blokhuis.

The coronavirus has brought about a lot of change in the world. The various measures deployed worldwide to combat the pandemic have had a major impact on our daily lives, from many workers losing part, or all, of their income to children no longer being able to go to school. In African countries, however, these impacts are even more severe.

On the continent, lower incomes and less education have led to more poverty and inequality. That’s why we’re examining the economic impact of COVID-19 in Africa, specifically the consequences of the pandemic in terms of work and poverty.

Here’s a closer look.

COVID-19’s impacts on work, school, and income

Large numbers of workers employed in sectors that were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, such as the tourism sector, were left out of work. In the 15 African countries for which data is available, one-third of workers stopped working during the pandemic and the remaining two-thirds of workers who managed to keep their jobs saw their income decrease between 11.5% and 15.6%. Of these 15 countries, the percentage of people who lost their jobs was highest in Kenya. Here, close to 900.000 people lost their jobs and nearly two million people were left in poverty due to the pandemic.

Children too experienced the consequences of the pandemic in terms of a loss in education as well as in terms of a loss in future income. In 2020, nearly all African countries kept their schools closed for at least 100 days. In some countries, such as Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan, schools were even closed for more than 200 days. This meant that children could not go to school for a long period of time, and since in Africa only 17.8% of the population had at-home access to the internet in 2019, online teaching was not always an option. Even in African countries in which many people have access to the internet, such as Kenya, many students still missed their online classes. Unfortunately, the fact that many children had to miss part of their education during the pandemic will continue to have an effect after the pandemic is over. The loss in education will negatively influence how much they will earn later on in life, and in the poorest countries, this future loss of income will be the greatest.

COVID-19’s impacts on poverty and inequality

Across Africa, the corona crisis has left more than 30 million people in extreme poverty, meaning they must live on less than $1.90 a day. Unfortunately, this number is expected to rise even further to 39 million people by 2021. This means that by 2021, 34.4% of people in Africa will be living in extreme poverty. This increase in extreme poverty reverses years of hard-won progress made in the fight to end poverty on the continent.

Additionally, the losses of income and education are not evenly distributed and as a result also undo some of the progress made in fighting inequality, especially when it comes to gender. In a lot of the sectors in which relatively many women are employed, it is difficult to social distance and to work from home. As a result, relatively more women have lost their jobs due to the pandemic than men. This is a serious setback in the promotion of women’s emancipation in Africa.

As for education, fewer girls are also expected to return to school after the pandemic. Some 2.6 million girls in Africa are at risk of not going back to school. School closures also have had a larger impact on children from poorer families than on children with wealthier parents. Children from poorer families are often more reliant on food programs at school and have less access to the internet. They are also more likely not to return to school after the crisis.

Implementing incentive packages

Reversing the increase in extreme poverty that happened in 2020 will require about $7.8 billion, and to reverse the effects of the expected increase in 2021 will require another $4.9 billion. However, high debt payments, lower export revenues, and lower tax revenues due to higher unemployment and lower wages mean that African governments have fewer resources to combat the increase in extreme poverty as well as the other socio-economic consequences of the pandemic. The average percentage of GDP spent on stimulus packages in Africa is only 3%, which is far lower than the 22% of GDP that is on average spent on stimulus packages in G20 countries. In South Sudan, the percentage of GDP that is spent on fighting the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic is even as low as 0.02%.

What happens next?

If G20 countries can ensure debt relief until the end of 2021, along with other economic measures, this will give African governments more opportunities to invest in combating the consequences of this global health crisis. Export revenues are already increasing and tourism revenues are also expected to increase again when travel restrictions are lifted, and Africa’s GDP is expected to grow again by 3.4% in 2021. However, the loss of education and the increase in poverty and inequality cannot be reversed that easily. For many African countries, it will be a major challenge to return to pre-crisis levels of poverty and education.

Help reverse those effects and sign our petition to call on governments to invest in education to ensure every child receives a quality education, and sign our petition to ask G20 countries to help protect the most vulnerable economies so everyone, everywhere can see an end to this global crisis.

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