In just three months, COVID-19 has upended life in Africa. Around 70,000 people have been infected and over 2,000 have died.
Statistically, the African continent has been spared from the high concentration of cases seen elsewhere. Politically, in a world where there is a deficit on global leadership, we have seen the African Union step up to ensure a coordinated response across the continent, particularly in supporting countries with weak health systems and pushing for debt restructuring.
However, the reality remains that this pandemic has further weakened existing fragile health systems. It has deepened the looming debt crisis and continued to aggravate the effects of food security threats. Three months on since Africa confirmed its first COVID-19 case, one thing is clear: the triple threats of health, debt, and hunger are not going away anytime soon.
Health and vaccine
Many African countries are still recovering from or dealing with recent outbreaks, including Ebola, measles, and Lassa, making them even more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. If infections continue to rise, Africa’s weak healthcare systems will not be able to deal with the raging virus.
We know that a vaccine and therapeutics are our only exit strategy from the pandemic. Yet, on average, there is typically a seven-year lag from the time a new medication or vaccine is available in a developed country to the time developing countries have access. We saw this in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic, where there was a severe shortage of vaccines in developing countries. Similarly, it took a decade for sub-Saharan African countries to obtain access to HIV/AIDS treatments.
We won’t beat this disease anywhere until we beat it everywhere. As we wait for a vaccine to be developed, there is an opportunity now to level the playing field and ensure everyone will have access to the vaccine, regardless of income. We saw European leaders step up during the recent pledging conference, but much more is needed. We need to enact price controls for vaccines, front load investing and continue to do more to support public health measures in countries with the weakest health systems.
The economy and debt
With social distancing, curfew, and lockdown measures bringing many businesses to a halt, the economic costs of COVID-19 are proving to be devastating in Africa. From falling remittances to fleeing foreign investment, Africa’s economic growth may slow down from 3.2% to 2% this year.
Further, the continent is in danger of losing 20 million jobs, with more than a third of African countries are at risk of debt distress. We saw G20 leaders agree to suspend debt repayments for the world’s poorest countries for the remainder of 2020 as part of its COVID-19 action plan. But this is a band-aid solution. Many sub-Saharan African countries, including the Gambia, Angola and DRC, spend more money on external debt repayment than their health budgets. A debt freeze until the end of 2020 is in an inadequate timeframe for African countries to recover from the economic consequence of this global pandemic, and they will struggle to meet the spiralling debt costs.
We won’t limit the economic impact of COVID-19 unless we secure a truly global recovery that leaves no one behind. G20 leaders must extend the current debt freeze until 2021 — not just to the poorest countries, but also to all African countries, including South Africa and Egypt. Further, we need the full US$100 billion economic stimulus package requested by African governments to support those who are worst hit.
Food security threats
Africa accounts for the majority of the nearly 212 million people in the world who are chronically food insecure. Even before COVID-19 hit, the continent faced severe food shortages caused by flood, drought, ongoing conflicts in the Sahel regions, and the worst locust infestations in decades in East Africa.
COVID-19 has put many governments in an impossible position. On one hand, the stringent lockdown, job losses, lowered remittances, and social distancing guidance means that millions of farmers and other informal workers in Africa are not able to work, resulting in a significant drop in their production and income.
On the other hand, the uncertainty of the pandemic has also pushed developed countries to impose export restrictions and export quotas. For African countries that are net food importers, this has a huge impact — and it’s not something they have any control over. Without funding, their hands are tied in supporting their citizens.
Ironically, food is not in short supply. If governments and businesses act now, they can prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from spilling over into a hunger pandemic. Leaders need to ensure a free flow of food from the world’s breadbaskets to where it is most needed. African governments should create a “grain corridor” to enable the free flow of food supplies, particularly the farmers, food processors, traders, and maritime workers to work safely during the lockdown.
A regional trade bloc across the continent would help ensure food supply. Globally, countries must resist protectionist measures in export bans and reduce trade barriers to ensure the global flow of goods, particularly medical and food supplies.
As we take stock of the impact of COVID in Africa over the past three months, there is an opportunity now to map out new and creative ways to tackle these triple threats. We are only as strong as the weakest link. Together, we can beat this.