Africa braces for coronavirus shock: As the Covid-19 virus begins to spread across Africa, Dr Desne Masie assesses the damage done so far and what is being done to protect people and economies against its worst effects.

Author:Masie, Desne

At the time of writing in mid-March, Africa seems to have so far been spared the worst human impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but was already beginning to suffer the destructive economic impact of a potential global slide to recession.

Medical experts are not sure yet why Africa has been slower to experience the infection rates seen elsewhere--and limited testing may obscure the true number of cases--but if the pandemic begins to escalate exponentially across the continent, the risk to the urban poor could be significant given cramped living conditions, limited access to sanitation and the continent's meagre public health services.

Given such fears for its vulnerable population, South Africa, which by mid-March had experienced several dozen cases, declared a national disaster on 15 March, banning all travel from major affected countries, including China, the UK, Italy and the US. Other African governments are expected to join South Africa in prioritising the preservation of human life over the economic impact of such measures by introducing a range of restrictive and exclusionary policies.

Such painful decisions will compound the destructive impact of the pandemic, which has already upended Africa's economic relationship with China by cutting the Asian country's usually voracious demand for oil, mining products and other raw materials from the continent as Chinese factories react to slowing global demand.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has revised Africa's growth downwards by nearly half, from 3.2% to 1.8%, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has revised global growth figures down from 2.9% to 1.5%. Yet given increasing social isolation measures and enforced city and country lockdowns, many are now projecting a global recession: Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic advisor to Allianz, asserted in mid-March that the world is going into a "sudden and deep recession."

Stock markets have shed trillions since the pandemic took hold and look set to fall still further as the full scale of the economic impact is better understood. On 16 March, losses on major indices represented the worst day for the markets since 1987.

Key sectors of the African economy sensitive to slowing global demand including tourism, agriculture, oil, and mining. Disruption to supply chains, plummeting commodity prices and a shutdown of the aviation sector are assured. If countries are swiftly able to control the...

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