The early, widespread expectation that Africa would be the vulnerable ground – the easiest of preys – on which the virus that had first emerged in China would cause the most widespread devastation, in terms of sheer human losses directly linked to the pandemic, has not thus far materialized. For reasons that still need to be fully understood, the health impact of COVID-19 appears to have been comparatively limited.
The virus was first recorded in Egypt on February 14, and in Nigeria, the first sub-Saharan country hit by COVID-19, some two weeks later. In about three months, the virus’ domino had become manifest in every single one of Africa’s 54 nations, with South Africa, Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria the worst affected countries. Yet the pandemic in Africa did not grow as expected, neither did it go fully out of control as feared. Far from it. When compared to other world regions, the transmission in Africa is proving slower, leading to a more limited number of cases, infections that are less serious, and a very small number of deaths.
Despite being home to some 17% of the global population – that is, about 1.3 billion people out of 7.8 billion – the continent only accounts for some 2% of COVID-19 infections worldwide and about 1% of related fatalities. A recent WHO-Africa study suggested that the region’s tallies could still rise and reach some 150,000 deaths by the end of 2020. As dramatic as this would be, one should keep in mind that an Italian-style impact would lead, over the same period, to a much larger 600,000 to 2-million fatalities.
The reasons behind this are not as obvious. Africa certainly lags behind in terms of testing and thus tracking the spread of the virus. Yet this is not a sufficient explanation. Demographic, social and climatic factors – alongside the measures adopted by African governments – are also likely at play. Most notably, the continent’s age structure – with a very young population when compared, for example, to Europe – is certainly proving a favourable asset. A simple model hypothesizes that two countries of similar demographic dimensions such as Uganda and Spain would be hit in vastly different ways in terms of the numbers of victims of the virus.
While the final direct health impact of the pandemic in Africa remains to be seen and fully assessed, there is no doubt that African economies will suffer the indirect effects of the pandemic. Reductions in trade, investments and remittances began to beat Africa before COVID-19 landed on the continent. These were compounded by the lockdown measures that were quickly adopted by African governments, halting most domestic activities as already seen across the world. The World Bank now quantifies the region’s slowdown as a likely -2.1% to -5.1% recession for 2020. This will be the first time sub-Saharan Africa goes under in the past 25 years.