Covid-19 in Africa: The Good News and the Bad

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian on May 2, 2020.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to enormous changes for countries in both Africa and the world. What might a post-Covid-19 Africa look like? We are starting to glimpse the shape of the continent to come—and it’s not all bad news (although there is plenty of that).

Covid-19 for Pessimists

The Human Cost

As of May 1, 37,393 cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed on the African continent. This includes 1,598 deaths. These figures are likely to become much worse before they get better. Modelling by Imperial College London suggests that even in the best-case scenario, about 300,000 people on the continent are likely to die from the novel coronavirus by the end of the year. This is an incalculable loss.

The Great Recession

Covid-19 and country lockdown measures are throttling the region’s economies, reversing decades of growth and endangering the lives of many Africans who live near or below the poverty line. In early April, the World Bank said the virus is driving the continent toward its first recession in 25 years. The international financial institution forecasts that growth will fall sharply, from 2.4 percent in 2019 to as much as -5.1 percent in 2020. The World Bank pointed to the disruption of trade and value chains; reduced foreign financial flows, including remittances; health infections, and fatalities; and government containment and mitigation measures as the main culprits for the economic crisis. The costs to African populations are likely to be dire. The United Nations says about 20 million jobs could be lost and the number of people facing acute food insecurity could double. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda warns it may take a generation to recover from Covid-19’s economic consequences. 

Xenophobia Rising

Fear about the disease’s spread has fueled another ugly wave of xenophobia, against foreigners in Africa and against Africans in China. When the news broke, there was an uptick in xenophobic speech against Chinese citizens. A Kenyan politician allegedly said Chinese people should be stoned on sight, and there have been other cases of Chinese people harassed and intimidated because of coronavirus fears. Xenophobia then reared its head in Cameroon and Ethiopia, where there have been incidents of online harassment, stone-throwing, and banging on vehicles occupied by expatriates. In the Central African Republic and South Sudan, the UN had to impose curfews for its staff because newspapers and social media have portrayed foreigners as responsible for Covid-19’s presence in these countries. Meanwhile, in China, Africans have been kicked out of their homes, turned away from hotels, and denied service in restaurants in Guangzhou.

Covid-19 Corruption

The outpouring of funds and supplies from the region’s governments and international partners presents new opportunities for corruption. In early April, Uganda arrested four top government officials following reports that they inflated Covid-19 relief food prices. Judging from the experience from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there is a high risk of more pilfering and extortion across the region. In 2019, Sierra Leone initiated a long-overdue investigation to uncover what happened to millions of dollars earmarked to support the country’s Ebola response. Transparency International this month warned that “corruption often thrives during times of crisis, particularly when institutions and oversight are weak, and public trust is low.”

Unchecked Extremists

African extremists are exploiting the pandemic’s paralyzing effects on regional governments, resulting in a surge in devastating attacks and propaganda. Unlike their counterparts in Europe who have adopted a safety-first posture during the pandemic, Africa’s al-Qaeda affiliates and Islamic State (IS) branches, as well as Boko Haram, are continuing to operate with little restraint. The IS-affiliated insurgency in northern Mozambique attacked two district capitals in its most audacious operations since the group’s emergence in 2017. Boko Haram killed 92 Chadian soldiers in the deadliest attack in the country’s history. In the Sahel, the al-Qaeda network recently kidnapped Mali’s main opposition leader. The extremists are benefiting from distracted government troops, some of which have been reassigned to enforce lockdown measures, as well as the absence of international peacekeepers and soldiers whose rotations have been suspended. Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have incorporated Covid-19 in their propaganda efforts. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau recently mocked his opponents, saying, “We have anti-virus. You have coronavirus.”

Journalism in Trouble

It is a difficult time to be a journalist anywhere in the world, and Africa is no exception. The economic effects of the pandemic have led to a dramatic slump in advertising revenues, and audiences are struggling to pay for news—in East Africa, newspaper circulations have dropped by half in the past couple of months. Newsrooms are struggling to make payroll every month; in some countries, media houses have already begun to cut salaries and lay off staff. This is a devastating blow to an already fragile media industry, from which it might never fully recover. And it comes at a time when reliable, credible journalism has never been more important.

What about Everything Else?

In an April 24 press briefing, the Africa director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Matshidiso Moeti, warned that malaria deaths could double in the next year—from 360,000 to 769,000. That’s a worst-case scenario, assuming that public health interventions designed to combat malaria are severely disrupted by the pandemic. Moeti’s point is more general, however: she is worried that the all-consuming focus on Covid-19 means that other threats are going to be left unchecked. This applies to health, with malaria being of particular concern, but also to other disasters, including floods, famine, and food insecurity. Not to mention the plague of locusts that are currently occupying vast swathes of East Africa: swarms eat their own body weight every day, and increase in size by 20 times every three months. Governments’ response to the pandemic cannot be to the exclusion of everything else.

Covid-19 for Optimists

The New Welfare States

African governments have undertaken the most significant expansion of social-welfare programs and worker protections since the early post-independence period. According to the Beijing-based Development Reimagined, 44 countries have initiated more than 150 programs to provide relief to their populations. These reforms include fees waived for utilities, as well as in-kind and cash transfers. There have been special provisions for health workers, such as in Ethiopia, where the government is buying life insurance; and in Ghana, where health workers are exempted from paying taxes for three months. Most countries also have unveiled a raft of measures to protect local businesses, including lowered interest rates for new loans, wage subsidies for employees, and extended deadlines for corporate tax payments. In mid-April, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced a stimulus plan worth 500 billion South African rand, or about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, to jump-start businesses and aid the poor.

Tech Solutions

Africans have turned to technology to weather the economic and health crisis, adopting digital solutions to work, bank, study, and stay in touch with the world. In Nigeria, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are trending search terms on Google. Ghana and other West African governments are waiving some mobile-money account set-up and transfer fees. Senegal has introduced an online learning platform, and South African universities are giving data packages to students. Rwanda is deploying drones to distribute medicine and deliver public-service announcements. Internet penetration may still be relatively low, but the pandemic is poised to spur greater access and innovation.

The Gospel of Wealth

The region’s richest have been falling over themselves to join the fight against Covid-19, heralding a new era of continental philanthropy. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, and other Nigerian business moguls launched the Coalition Against Covid-19 to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria. Within days, the fund had received more than $65 million in donations from 53 individuals, banks, and corporations. South Africa’s wealthiest families, the Ruperts and the Oppenheimers, as well as mining magnet Patrice Motsepe’s group of companies, each contributed 1 billion rand to assist small businesses and their employees affected by the coronavirus pandemic. There have been similar examples of high-profile charitable donations in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

Admissions of Guilt

Some African leaders are reining in their abusive militaries and wayward ministers, raising the very low bar for accountability. After reports of several security services using excessive force to ensure compliance with Covid-19 public-health measures, a handful of leaders have issued apologies and initiated investigations. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya told fellow citizens that he was sorry for the violence meted out by police. In South Africa, Ramaphosa of South Africa appointed an ombudsman to investigate claims of abuse, as did President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana and Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire. In addition, Ramaphosa and Masisi have censured government officials who violated lockdown orders. Although these reprimands are nascent and specific to a few countries, they represent an important step in a region where accountability is often lacking.

A Newly Assertive Leadership

Africa’s leaders have shown some backbone in its international relations, insisting on fairer treatment of the region’s citizens and relief for its economic plight. Although they are far from unprecedented, African admonishments of foreign partners have rarely been as forceful or public. Several presidents, as well as African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki, rushed to condemn United States President Donald Trump’s attack on the WHO. The continent’s rebuke of Chinese racism against Africans in Guangzhou was even more vigorous. African officials went on the offense, dressing down Chinese diplomats and defending African dignity. Meanwhile, African leaders have demanded a seat at the table for debt relief and bailouts. Ramaphosa assembled an all-star team―including Donald Kaberuka, Trevor Manuel, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Tidjane Thiam―to press the G20, the European Union, and other international financial institutions to deliver “concrete support,” including a stimulus package, to assist the region’s fragile economies. 

The African Union’s Foresight

The AU comes in for a lot of criticism―some of it justified. But the continental body deserves enormous credit for its foresight in creating the Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC) in 2017, in the wake of the West African Ebola outbreak. Although the Africa CDC is still a young organization, it has played a crucial role formulating advice and guidelines for heads of state, and in ramping up testing capacity. At the beginning of February, just two African countries had the capacity to test for the novel coronavirus. By March, that number had risen to 46. Although the Africa CDC’s advice to leaders mirrors that of the WHO―the two organizations work closely together―it matters that the Africa CDC is an African-run, African-led institution housed within the AU itself. It means that African leaders are more likely to trust and implement that advice; right now, the continent is reaping the benefits of that trust.

Overturning Stereotypes

With notable exceptions―Tanzania being the most obvious example―the response of most African countries to this unprecedented public-health threat has been better organized, better informed, and better implemented than many of their Western counterparts. Leaders have looked to scientists and public-health experts to inform their decisions, and have acted early and with considerable determination―even though most African governments are operating with just a fraction of the resources available to richer countries. There can be little doubt that this has slowed the spread of the pandemic on the continent. It has also done wonders to overturn those tired, ill-informed stereotypes about the poverty of African leadership.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Simon Allison is Africa editor at the Mail & Guardian.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Judd Devermont