The effects of Covid-19 on Africa

In this series of articles we assess the possibilities of Covid-19 taking hold in Africa, and look at the effects and the measures that could be taken to minimise the worst effects.

The Covid-19 virus has yet to hit Africa in a big way. According to the latest figures, there are now 6,249 reported cases are in Africa, out of a global total of nearly 1 million. No doubt, the number of cases will increase, but how deadly will it be? What are the likely longer-term effects on the continent’s economy and on food production? Will Africa be more or less successful than richer economies in dealing with the pandemic?

Africa: a less deadly outcome than the rest of the world?

The highest incidence of African cases occur in countries which have the most frequent contacts with countries where the pandemic has taken hold:  South Africa (1,380), Egypt (609), Morocco (654), Algeria (847), and Tunisia (394). In contrast, cases in sub-Saharan Africa (with the except of South Africa) still remain low, and in the countries of Bread and Water for Africa UK’s projects,  extremely low: Rwanda: 82, Kenya: 81; Zimbabwe: 8, Burundi: 2; Sierra Leone: 1, with two deaths.

View of streets in Eldoret Kenya
Street view in Eldoret, Kenya

Why are these figures so low? It seems that Africa’s youthful population may provide the answer. First of all younger people are more resilient and will have milder symptoms. Secondly, figures indicate that it is more fatal among older people. In China, where 16% of the population are over 60, 80% of deaths were in this group. In Italy, where there are now 12,500 deaths, those hardest hit are aged 70+, with 20.5% of deaths in this age group, rising to a startling 28% for those 80+.

In contrast, in Africa only 5% of the population are over 60, so a younger population might withstand the effects of the virus. This is the positive aspect.

However, we are at the beginning of the crisis on the continent and it is hard to predict how it will develop. Experts anticipate that, contrary to Europe and Asia, where efforts have focused on "flattening the curve" to allow the healthcare systems to cope, the spread of the virus in Africa could have a slower start but could be close to impossible to contain once it reaches a critical level. 

One must remember that given the low capacity of the health-care systems in most countries and the prevalence of other serious illnesses, the health services will quickly be overwhelmed. For example, in Burundi hospitals are already coping with the recent outbreak of cholera and dysentery, caused by heavy rains and flooding, making it a much harder task to deal with Covid-19.

People in a slum in Bujumbura, Burundi, after a flood, with water up to their knees
People in Burundi after a recent flood

Other countries are facing epidemics, such as a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example. Confinement measures could slow down vaccination campaigns, which will in turn increase mortality linked to these other diseases. Healthcare systems are already struggling, with lack of equipment, lack of beds, lack of personnel and lack of tests.  

A positive element is that African countries are learning quicker than their richer neighbours. Governments in Burundi, Ethiopia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Rwanda, have already introduced measures to restrict social-mixing. This includes closing schools, stopping football matches and banning visitors from infected countries.

Unfortunately, these measures have their downsides. One of the most successful recent local community moves has been school-feeding programmes. We know from our partner CAPE in Burundi and We Are the Future in Sierra Leone how these have improved children’s health and cognitive development. In countries where school closures are already underway to prevent Covid-19 spreading, will this mean that hundreds of children will be deprived of the one healthy meal they can count on every day? 

John Sandy of WAF explained the situation in Sierra Leone, where the schools were closed in late March by Presidential order. “Obviously the  school closure has affected the school feeding programme. Many of the children are from very poor families, and depend on this for their daily meal, especially as we are seeing food prices escalating”.

Part 1 of 3.

In the second article of this series, we’ll look more closely at the effects of the restrictive measures on these fragile economies, with no safety nets for families and businesses, and on food production.

Articles consulted

Fighting COVID-19 in Africa Will Be Different, Patrick Dupoux, Jim Larson, Shalini Unnikrishnan, Wendy Woods, 26 March 2020, BCG, https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/fighting-covid-in-africa.aspx

Covid-19: Economic impact on East and southern Africa, Nin Callaghan and Mark Swilling, 27 March, Daily Maverick, World Health Organisation. Situation report.
https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200330-sitrep-70-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=7e0fe3f8_2 

How will COVID-19 affect Africa’s food systems? William Moseley, 25 March 2020, African Arguments.
https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/25/covid-19-africa-food-systems/ 

What Might Africa Teach the World? Covid-19 and Ebola Virus Disease Compared, Paul Richards, 17 March 2020, African Arguments,
https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/17/what-might-africa-teach-the-world-covid-19-and-ebola-virus-disease-compared/

African Arguments,Coronavirus’ triple hit in Africa on health, the economy and politics, Nick Westcott, 18 March, African Arguments.
https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/18/coronavirus-triple-hit-in-africa-on-health-the-economy-and-politics/


by Daphne Davies, volunteer journalist

*Banner photo credit: Blue Ox Studio