With the developed world failing to stop the devastating spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, fear has grown over Africa’s ability to contain the virus. The continent is already suffering from the spread and exacerbation of many health, humanitarian, and environmental crises and runs the risk of becoming another epicenter of this deadly pandemic.
Countries in Africa have not yet witnessed a significant outbreak, with the total number of infections on April 29 amounting to 35,071 cases and about 1,534 deaths. According to an African Union report, mostly in North Africa, the continent’s security, political, and health situation makes it more vulnerable than other regions with stronger health systems.
This study uses three parameters to analyze the risk factors related to the fear of Covid-19 in Africa. It tries to shed light on the political, economic, and security dimensions of the pandemic on the continent. The study examines the measures taken by the African countries to combat Covid-19 in collaboration with international partners and also looks at the importance of supporting Africa while it battles the virus threat.
Even though the numbers related to the Covid-19 outbreak in Africa are much lower than in the US and Europe, the deficiencies of local health services sectors and the security and humanitarian problems the continent faces present potential risks for the spread of Covid-19. The crisis more looks even more acute given the global uncertainty over appropriate treatment for the virus or a time limit for the end of the crisis. Seen in this context, the most prominent fear factors can be identified as follows:
Most African countries have fragile health systems. During 2016, as many as 22 of 25 African countries were listed on RAND’s Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index. This means that if an infection-transmitted disease occurs, it can easily spread across borders in all directions. This was primarily because of the high vulnerability or high risk of the prevalence of disease and due to the poor health systems in these countries. (1)
Moreover, Africa faces other profound health challenges that cause great loss of lives, including cholera, yellow fever, measles, Ebola, and AIDS. According to the reproduction number, Aka R0 – used to assess the number of people likely to be infected by a single person carrying the disease – estimates for Covid-19 range from 1.4 to 3.5 and for Ebola from 1.5 to 2. For measles, the estimates are higher, ranging from 12.2 to 18.(2)
The worrying part is that Covid-19 has hit the continent at a very vulnerable time. Following several natural disasters, 2019 was a catastrophic year for Africa. Zambia and Zimbabwe still face the worst drought since 1981. Tropical cyclones have swept through Mozambique, and swarms of locusts have invaded crops throughout East Africa, threatening the food security of 20 million people.
The meager financial resources of most African countries are also expected to limit their crisis response capacity.(3) In March 2020, Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), estimated that the continent now needs up to $10.6 billion of additional health spending.
Though Africans account for 16 percent of the world’s population, they only enjoy 1 percent of global health-care spending. Compared to Italy, which has 41 doctors per 10,000 people, Africa has only 2 doctors per 10,000 people. There is only one anesthesiologist per 100,000 people in most African countries. As for respirators, a key requirement for treating Covid-19 cases, there is also a severe shortage: according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are less than 2,000 respirators in 41 African countries.
Moreover, one of the main problems in Africa can be summed up in the following question: How could coronavirus affect a region already fighting other diseases? These include malaria, cholera, and HIV from which seven million people are suffering in the southern part of the continent. Doctors expect AIDS patients to be among the top in the list of Covid-19 victims. (4)
Another problem is the difficulty of measuring the gravity of the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa, now or in the future as many cases, including infection, mortality rate, and transmission patterns, are still unconfirmed. There are no strong systems for medical examinations and the detection of infections.
The inadequacy of effective health systems, negative economic conditions, weak response frameworks for diseases, and the high probability of the spread of infectious epidemics in Africa, are all essential weaknesses in the management of the Covid-19 crisis. If the virus spreads, its effects and impact might be catastrophic.
While the overall numbers do not yet reflect a significant crisis in Africa, compared to Europe, the US, and East Asia, the constant increase in the confirmed cases have raised serious concerns that the situation could get out of control.
Between April 1 and 29, the number of infections in Africa increased seven times, from about 5,786 to more than 35,000 cases While the number of deaths rose from 205 to 1,543. The continent’s northern region is ranked first in terms of coronavirus cases, deaths, and even recoveries, according to the African Union and Africa CDC data, as illustrated by the following tables:(5)
Africa CDC Dashboard, April 01, 2020
Africa CDC Dashboard, April 29, 2020
Egypt and Algeria in North Africa, Mauritius in the east, Côte d’Ivoire in the west, and South Africa in the south and Cameroon in Central Africa, have been the main focal points of the virus’s spread.
Among the fears that loom on the horizon in Africa is the prevalence of many social and economic factors, which may help spread the virus rapidly on a large scale. These include the occurrence of large crowds and the practice of certain rituals collectively. They form a part of the continent’s social and cultural heritage and are sometimes also part of tourist programs. They are particularly prevalent in southern African countries, such as Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho. The idea of an extended family, living in one habitat, eating together and drinking from the same water pot, can contribute to the virus’s spread.(6)
It is also feared that large numbers of refugees and displaced populations could become potential hotbeds of Covid-19 in Africa. For example, the humanitarian crisis triggered because of Boko Haram’s acts of terror in Nigeria has left 7 million displaced people in the north of the country, most of whom are women and children. Nearly a quarter of them are children under the age of five. Today, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 percent of the world’s refugees.
This number has increased rapidly in recent years owing to the ongoing crises in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and South Sudan, as well as new conflicts in Burundi and Yemen.
Some African countries suffer from political and security instability and have been unable to control the regions where armed conflicts have spread. They have destroyed health infrastructure, including hospitals, and led to the flight of doctors and nurses. This is evident in the cases of northern Burkina Faso, Cameroon’s Anglophone region, South Somalia, South Sudan, etc. Statistics show that out of the 41 ongoing conflicts so far around the world, 23 are in Africa, representing 56 percent of the world’s conflicts. As a result, the environment in these areas are conducive to the spread of Covid-19.(7)
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on Africa point to major imbalances at different levels. There is a growing fear that these repercussions would be catastrophic if the virus actually spreads in the continent. The most prominent of these repercussions or impacts can be described as follows:
A large-scale outbreak of Covid-19 in African countries could have a major political impact, including:
Such a potential failure could be accompanied by growing domestic criticism of regimes. This is especially true with the deterioration of infrastructure, and growing corruption in various sectors, including health sectors, as in Nigeria and many other countries in West Africa. (9)
Furthermore, the virus may further influence the domestic pressure and policies of some countries in a way that serves specific development sectors or geographical areas. This is important since the continent’s experience portends that these pressures would become potential instruments of change for the current governments and regimes in some African countries, such as Ethiopia and Sudan.
Talks concerning the development of health and social sectors are already evident in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. There have also been several calls for the strengthening of social protection programs and resources to develop the infrastructure and address this wave of the pandemic. This has become even more relevant considering a marked decline in social protection allocations and infrastructure development funds in most African countries.(10)
The Covid-19 crisis may have a potential impact at the continental level, especially in two possible areas. First, potential changes in the nature of Africa’s relations and alliances may mean that some major international players such as the US and EU might be unable to provide the necessary support to Africa to tackle the pandemic. This would open the door for re-forging Africa’s future relations and alliances, with an unprecedented focus on China, which has provided various forms of support to African countries since it recovered from the pandemic. This was evident early on as Chinese-African cooperation continued to prosper to a large degree further augmenting the pre-Covid-19 economic momentum. Such cooperation may take an even deeper political and security dimension compared to cooperation with the US and the EU.(11)
The second issue concerns the efficiency of African organizations, which are likely to become controversial in light of their plans to counter the virus. Africa has several regional multi-purpose sub-organizations, in addition to the African Union, the umbrella organization of the entire continent. These include ECOWAS, SADC, COMESA, and IGAD. The current crisis will be one of the indicators through which the level of African confidence in these groups and organizations can be measured. Also, the extent of their ability to withstand and play an active role in confronting this dangerous global crisis is unknown. The universality of the crisis and its somehow low severity in Africa has, so far, contributed to silencing voices critical of the work of these organizations, though this may change if the situation deteriorates.
Covid-19 pandemic is expected to have a significant economic impact on Africa as these economies are largely linked to the global economy. One of the most significant of these repercussions could be:
In its report released in March, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) predicted that Covid-19 would reduce Africa’s $2.1 trillion GDP by about 1.4 percent, due to disruption in some African countries and around the world. The report also predicted that Africa’s economic growth would drop from 3.2 percent in February to 1.8 percent in March, with the situation likely to worsen in the coming months. Meanwhile, the UN has predicted that the continent would need more than $100 billion to cope with the outbreak.(13)
Estimates by the African Union on the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on Africa indicate that the projected job losses will amount to about 20 million, as well as commercial losses close to $270 billion,(14) which will inevitably exacerbate social and economic crises.
Another study by the African Union predicts the average economic growth to drop by 0.8 percent of the African Development Bank’s earlier-year forecast of growth of about 3.4 percent. If the pandemic lasts for several months, the average growth will fall by 1.1 percent and the total losses to African government revenues from tariffs, taxes, and fees may amount to approximately $500 billion, which is equivalent to one-quarter of Africa’s GDP.(15)
The IMF’s World Economic Outlook, published in April 2020, also predicted a -1.6 percent contraction in sub-Saharan African economies this year, compared to 3 percent growth in 2019, as a result of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.(16)
In terms of trade, ECA estimates that Africa’s export revenues will lose $110 billion, including $65 billion in oil-exporting countries. The burden of health spending on African government budgets might increase by an additional $10 billion. There are fears of food shortages and drug supply disruptions.(17)
There is a persistent threat that terrorist groups in Africa can exploit Covid-19, taking advantage of the chaos and disorder created by the virus. They can carry out terrorist attacks and try to strengthen their influence, particularly in West Africa, the Sahel, and the Sahara. The threat would be even more serious if terrorist groups use the uncertain situation caused by a spread of the virus as an excuse to expand their activities and carry out new operations against citizens and governments.
Reports suggest that terrorists are continuing to carry out attacks. Attacks on military bases in Chad by Boko Haram resulted in the death of one hundred members of the Chadian army. Similar attacks have taken place in Mali and Burkina Faso.(21)
On the other hand, the outbreak of Covid-19 in African countries is likely to channel more resources into countering the virus,(22) which might negatively affect funding being made available to fight terrorist groups.
Other potential security implications in case of an outbreak include a rise in social unrest due to higher unemployment rates or disease. This could enhance the severity of tribal and civil conflicts and possibly weaponize the pandemic.
Many African countries have adopted a range of health policies to counter the spread of this virus, drawing on their previous experiences in combating viruses and diseases, such as Ebola. Many countries have dealt with the WHO instructions and procedures positively and effectively. Moreover, the African Union has been keen to play a coordinating regional role to counter the spread of the virus. In addition to official country-wide and government efforts, and in cooperation with international health and economic institutions, the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC) organized a series of virtual seminars entitled “Civil Society Response to COVID 19 – Best Practices in Africa”, to highlight innovative interventions by African civil society organizations in the fight against the spread of the virus.
The most prominent of these policies and efforts may be highlighted as follows:
a) Conducting Covid-19 testing: Until the beginning of February 2020, only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa, i.e. Senegal and South Africa, had the capacity to test and detect infections through reagents and sample testing laboratories. Yet this total has been rapidly increased with support from the WHO to 47 countries. The international organization has assisted 43 other countries in either establishing or increasing their own national laboratories.
b) Support for the healthcare sector: Some African governments have endorsed subsidies for the healthcare sector with the Nigerian government providing $270 million to support it, of which $16 million have already been allocated as critical expenditures for the Nigeria Center for Disease Control. The Egyptian government pledged around $6 billion in funds from the 2020-2021 budget to counter the effects of the virus on various sectors. Many African countries have resorted to similar measures.
c) Establishing hospitals and clinics: In Nigeria, for example, lessons learned from the experience of dealing with the Ebola epidemic has been applied by separating the Covid-19 response from regular healthcare, with people showing symptoms admitted into specialized clinics separate from the regular health system. The Egyptian government allocated entire hospitals for isolation nationwide, and fully equipped university hospitals, university cities, and hostels to receive 11,000 cases when necessary.
d) Mobility restrictions: As soon as a rise in Covid-19 infections were reported in several African countries, many of them, including Ethiopia, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, Zambia, Rwanda, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, restricted citizen movements through bans and social distancing policies, closed schools and universities and suspended sports, cultural and artistic activities. Kenya, Djibouti, Ghana, South Africa, Gabon, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Mauritania restricted travel to countries where the virus has spread and closed schools. Health authorities in African countries monitored those returning from countries hit by the pandemic.
e) Increasing community awareness: Health officials in countries affected by the virus provided regular media bulletins about the development of the crisis and appeared on national television to show the number of cases and the precautionary measures that citizens must follow to curb the spread.The WHO is helping local authorities to formulate radio messages and television broadcasts to inform the public of the risks of Covid-19 and the measures to be taken. The WHO also helps combat misinformation and guides countries to establish call centers to keep the public informed.
Many civil society organizations have supported these campaigns to encourage citizens to commit themselves to preventive actions in fighting the virus. These countries include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, etc.
f) Drawing on the Ebola experience: African countries, particularly in West Africa, have gained a lot of experience in dealing with epidemics since the Ebola virus struck the continent in 2014. They tried to build on these and develop some of the policies they have pursued in the past to tackle Covid-19, particularly in terms of procedures for strengthening detection tests, selection of locations for building field hospitals, and the strict application of the principle of isolation for infections. This has been clearly demonstrated in countries such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.(23)
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the African Union has been keen to crystalize the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for Covid-19 Outbreak, (AFTCOR), which was approved by African Health Ministers on February 22 in Addis Ababa and the Bureau of the Assembly of the African Union Heads of State and Government, on March 26. The strategy is to prevent the spread of the pandemic in the African Union member states and reduce its social unrest and economic consequences.
The African Union Commission and the Africa CDC also launched a new initiative, “Partnership to Accelerate Covid-19 Testing: Trace, Test and Track”, aimed at strengthening the ability to conduct testing across Africa, with a focus on countries with only minimal capacity. This initiative will ensure that at least 10 million Africans, who would have not been tested, get tested in the next six months.
The African Union has also continued to share information with member states, and the Africa CDC established a working group to combat the spread of the virus, in addition to training representatives of member states on laboratory testing of the virus, with support from the WHO.(24)
On March 31, the heads of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) agreed to establish a regional fund with the continental support of the African Union and international support of the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions to confront Covid-19. Participating countries also agreed to put into place mechanisms to coordinate between the health and finance ministries in the region, keep countries closed and not allow people to travel, coordinate and open crossings for commodities and health equipment related to fighting Covid-19 pandemic, while also ensuring border control.
On April 3, African leaders held a virtual summit in which leaders of nine African countries (Senegal, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda), the African Union Commission Chairperson, Head of the World Health Organization, the Chairman of Africa CDC, and French President Macron, participated in order to organize a continental response to the pandemic. The summit endorsed many important decisions, including the approval of the establishment of the Africa Covid-19 Response Fund, and the provision of safe transportation routes between African countries to transport goods and medical supplies.
In a step reflecting African awareness of the gravity of the crisis, the African Union appointed three special envoys to mobilize international economic support for the continent’s struggle against Covid-19.(25) The African Union Bureau, which includes the presidents of Egypt, South Africa, Mali, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also approved the establishment of a continental fund to combat Covid-19, as well as the immediate donation of $12 million as initial funding. The Bureau urged member states of the African Union, the international community, and charitable entities to contribute to the fund.
At the economic level, the African Union adopted many of the necessary plans and procedures to address the consequences of the pandemic, including the African Export-Import Bank declaration (Afreximbank), on March 20, to offer $3 billion in facilities to cushion the pandemic trade impact (PATIMFA) and help African countries deal with the economic and health consequences of Covid-19. The African Finance Ministers Council also agreed to allocate $100 billion of emergency funding. In addition, African ministers warned that their economies were facing profound risks of deceleration and would take at least three years to recover.
The WHO has made significant efforts to support African governments by providing thousands of Covid-19 early-detection testing devices, training dozens of health workers, and strengthening community monitoring. The Organization is also working with a network of experts to coordinate regional monitoring efforts, epidemiology, modeling, diagnosis, care, and clinical treatment, and other means to identify and manage the disease and help reduce its rampant transmission. (26)
In a February 5 press release, WHO stated that it identified 13 high-priority countries in Africa, due to their direct links or a large number of flights to China. These countries – Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia – need to be extremely vigilant with regard to Covid-19.
China was among the countries that provided the largest levels of practical support to Africa. On April 6, the Chinese government approved sending of medical supplies to 17 African countries, starting with Ghana. Beneficiary African countries also include Nigeria, Senegal, Gabon, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Liberia, Mali and Burkina Faso, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Benin, Cape Verde, as well as São Tomé and Príncipe.(27) The Nigerian government also initiated cooperation with Chinese medical experts to exchange expertise, train medical personnel in Nigeria, and enhance the country’s capacity to manage the pandemic on an advisory basis, if necessary, drawing on the Chinese experiences. Egypt announced receiving medical supplies from China to combat Covid-19.
Furthermore, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund released $22 billion to fight Covid-19, including $10 billion that can be lent at a zero interest rate to poor and developing countries. The two organizations said that the priority is access to finance, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. On March 3, the World Bank announced a $12 billion emergency plan to help countries in need to “take effective measures” to contain the pandemic, save lives and mitigate the disease.
Although Covid-19 is still limited in Africa compared to other parts of the world, there is growing fear that the virus could quickly spread across the continent. The threat is acute considering the continent’s major weaknesses in terms of health infrastructure and the potential security, political and economic threats that could arise. These factors underscore the importance of proactive international action to strengthen Africa’s capacities to prevent the outbreak of this pandemic, or adopt effective measures to address it in the event of this catastrophic scenario. Despite the important efforts made at the African and international levels to strengthen Africa’s response capabilities so far, there is a greater need to increase this support and help the continent and its people survive this global crisis with minimal damage.
(1) Melinda Moore (et. al.), “Identifying Future Disease Hot Spots: Infectious Disease Vulnerability Index”, RAND National Defense Research Institute. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1605.html.
(2) .Shannon Smith, “What the Coronavirus Means for Africa”, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at:
(3) Jason Burke and Samuel Okiror , Africa’s fragile health systems rush to contain coronavirus, 20March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/20/africas-fragile-health-systems-rush-to-contain-coronavirus
(4) Nigeria: UN and partners acting to avert coronavirus spread in displacement camps,
(5) Figures and statistics are extracted from the official African Union website:
(8) Euronews (Arabic Edition), “Will Covid-19 lead to escalation or decline of conflicts around the world?”
(10) Shannon Smith, “What the Coronavirus Means for Africa”, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, at:
(11) Heidi Shafei, “Africa and Covid-19: An Active Response Despite Challenges”, the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (Cairo: The Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, March 29, 2020):
(12) United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
(14) Emergency meeting of African finance ministers to discuss Covid-19 economic consequences:
(15) United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) https://unctad.org/en/Pages/coronavirus.aspx
(17) United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
(19) World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC)
(23) DR Congo: With Ebola on the wane, UN agencies prepare to combat coronavirus, 3 March 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1058551
(25) African Union Chair President Cyril Ramaphosa Appoints Special Envoys to Mobilise International Economic Support for Continental Fight against COVID-19
(26) African countries move from COVID-19 readiness to response as many confirm cases, https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus-covid-19
(27) China lends a hand to Africa’s coronavirus fight, 7 April 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3076049/zero-home-grown-coronavirus-cases-reported-china-second-day