Coronavirus: Africa faces ‘complete collapse of economies and livelihoods’ if spread is not controlled, UN warns

Joe Sommerlad
A man carries home groceries during a nationwide 21-day lockdown in an attempt to contain the coronavirus disease outbreak in Umlazi township near Durban, South Africa: Rogan Ward/Reuters

Africa is facing the “complete collapse of economies and livelihoods” unless the spread of coronavirus can be contained, UN official Ahunna Eziakonwa has warned.

More than half of the continent’s 54 countries have imposed lockdowns, curfews, travel restrictions and other measures in a bid to prevent the local transmission of the virus. There are now more than 1.2m cases globally and the disease has caused more than 65,000 deaths, with China, the US and Italy worst-hit.

Africa has so far recorded just 8,000 cases of Covid-19 and 334 deaths, while 702 people have recovered, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the region's most developed country, South Africa, has proven itself ruthlessly efficient in responding to the virus, setting up drive-through testing centres and mobile medical units, others are likely to prove far more vulnerable.

“We’ve been through a lot on the continent,” ​Ms Eziakonwa, the UN’s development programme regional director for Africa, told the AP. “Ebola, yes, African governments took a hit, but we have not seen anything like this before.

“The African labour market is driven by imports and exports and with the lockdown everywhere in the world, it means basically that the economy is frozen in place. And with that, of course, all the jobs are gone.”

Unless the disease’s spread can be controlled, up to 50 per cent of all projected job growth in Africa will be lost as aviation, the service industry, exports, mining, agriculture and the informal sector all suffer, Ms Eziakonwa added.

“We will see a complete collapse of economies and livelihoods,” ​she warned. “Livelihoods will be wiped out in a way we have never seen before.”

The UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) has meanwhile said the pandemic could seriously hinder already stagnant growth, with oil-exporting nations like Nigeria and Angola losing up to £52bn in revenue as prices tumble.

Economies in sub-Saharan Africa are regarded as especially at risk because many are heavily indebted and some struggle just to implement their budgets under less stressful circumstances.

Now the continent might need up to £8.5bn in unplanned increases in health spending while revenue losses could lead to debt becoming unsustainable, Uneca chief Vera Songwe commented in March. Urgent calls for an economic stimulus package have since followed.

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed has spoken of an “existential threat” to Africa’s economies while seeking up to £120bn from G20 nations. A meeting of the continents’ finance ministers agreed that Africa needs a stimulus package of up to £80bn, including a waiver of up to £35.4bn in interest payments.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa backed the calls for a rescue package, saying in a recent speech that the pandemic “will reverse the gains that many countries have made in recent years”.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on 25 March it had received requests for emergency financing from close to 20 African countries, with requests from another 10 or more likely to follow.

The IMF has since approved credit facilities for at least two West African nations – Guinea and Senegal – facing virus-related economic disruption.

Further challenges remain. Rampant corruption in many African countries feeds inequality and poor or non-existent public services stoke public anger that sometimes escalates into street protests and deadly violence.

“What we may currently be experiencing is the calm before a heavy and devastating storm,” South Africa’s health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday, warning against complacency.

“Unless we move fast we will soon be swarmed. There will therefore be no further warning before the pounding descends upon us.

“There will not be time to prepare what we will not have put in place in the next seven days,” Dr Mkhize said. “We don’t as yet have a true picture of the size of the problem.”

Additional reporting by AP

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