Africa battles the coronavirus as it faces its first recession in 25 years

While Africa’s Covid-19 response has been praised by some, the pandemic has triggered the continent’s first recession in 25 years.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread worldwide, with high numbers of fatalities reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the first months of last year, followed by even higher numbers in Italy, Spain, the UK and USA and other developed countries with strong health care systems. The recent global death toll compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows that over 2 million people have lost their lives in the pandemic. However, most African countries continue to experience lower mortality rates notwithstanding their more fragile healthcare systems, thus defying the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s worst predictions.

In May 2020, the United Nations’ health agency warned that an estimated 190,000 people in Africa could die of Covid-19 in the first year of the pandemic, and that the disease could “smoulder” across the continent for years.

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Many African countries have been praised for waging an effective campaign to combat the spread of coronavirus despite their reputation for having fragile state heath systems © Luke Walker/Getty Images

A coordinated response to Covid

“Africa’s swift and multilateral response to the pandemic contributed largely to its initial success in controlling the spread of the virus, though some countries such as South Africa still experienced significant outbreaks,” is the assessement of a report by Columbia University and the Brenthurst Foundation. “As soon as the first African case of Covid-19 was reported in Egypt, African leaders quickly realised the Covid-19 pandemic was not a disease they could fight with ventilators; given the poor state of the health care systems, they quickly implemented virus safety awareness public health campaigns and containment measures“.

John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, who helped steer the continents’ 54 countries in responding to the pandemic – rather effectively in some cases – urged them not to wait for help. He rejected what he described as an image of the continent holding a begging bowl, insisting that Africa could stand up to fight the crisis if given the chance.

Despite early preparedness, the pandemic has strained fragile health care systems and has also disrupted non-Covid-19 related healthcare services such as antenatal and emergency care, and access to life-saving medications. This setback threatens to erode decades of progress in reducing disease and increasing life expectancy in Africa.

Africa tightening belts due to recession

However, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the economies of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have been hurt badly by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, the IMF projected that their economies would contract by 3.3 per cent, the first recession in 25 years. “Growth is projected to recover to 3.4 per cent in 2021 subject to the continued gradual easing of restrictions that has started in recent weeks and, importantly, if the region avoids the same epidemic dynamics that have played out elsewhere,” the financial institution wrote in June 2020.

Yet Zambia became Africa’s first Covid-19 casualty in terms of defaulting on it debt, in this case Eurobonds worth 42.5 million US dollars. Prior to the pandemic, the Southern African country was due to pay 1.7 billion dollars to service its foreign debt in 2020. Official documents from the World Bank show external debt rising by 11 billion dollars at the end of 2019, compared to 8.74 billion dollars a year earlier.

Other indebted countries are likely to follow in Zambia’s footsteps, including Angola, which borrowed more than 43 billion dollars from China between 2000 and 2018. Next are Ethiopia and Kenya, with 14 and 9 billion dollars in debt respectively.

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A nurse sanitises a member of the public entering a Covid-19 centre in Harare, Zimbabwe © Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images

Debunking disinformation and fighting scams

In addition, countries on the continent have struggled to control disinformation often spread through social media, with figures such as Bill Gates being targeted as “voodoo dolls of Covid conspiracies“. For instance, Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli recently claimed that inhaling steam is an effective treatment against coronavirus, claiming without scientific evidence that the virus dies because it is very oily. “I want to thank Tanzanians of all faiths. We have been praying and fasting for God to save us from the pandemic that has afflicted our country and the world. But God has answered us,” he also added.

Local media reports that Magufuli’s government has stopped publishing data on the number of coronavirus cases in the country. The last official data was released in April last year, recording 509 cases and 21 deaths in Tanzania.

In addition, Mike Sonko, the governor of Kenya’s capital Nairobi recently faced a severe backlash for misleading remarks about alcohol and the coronavirus. Sonko was explaining why he is including bottles of Hennessy cognac in food supplies for vulnerable people in the city, saying it would serve as a throat sanitiser.

Tanzania President Maguful
Tanzania’s President Magufuli has repeatedly said the health crisis has been exaggerated and urged people to attend services in churches and mosques © Jeanne Kagame/ Flickr

Many Africans remain pessimistic about whether their governments will be transparent enough in administering medical resources to counter the effects of Covid-19. For instance, in Kenya, equipment packages donated by the by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma were illicitly sold, lost or wasted. Furthermore, the government has reported that an estimated 400 million dollars in funds allocated towards to responding to the pandemic have vanished and the culprits haven’t been arrested. But if ever there was a case highlighting the painful reality of the dangers of corruption, it is the scandal surrounding Zambian Health Ministry officials who stole million dollars in the form of cash, pledges and aid donations destined for the Covid-19 response.

In addition, in June last year the ministry awarded a tender worth 17 million dollars for the procurement of health kits to Honey Bee pharmacies, even though it was found that the company wasn’t even registered and had no physical address when the contract was awarded.

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