Since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, Africa has largely – and often unjustifiably – been kept out of the spotlight. The 1.3 billion-strong continent has only officially recorded 22,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths, a fraction of the 2.5 million people who are officially known to have contracted the virus worldwide. Yet, late last week, the World Health Organisation warned that Africa may become the next epicentre of the virus.
UN officials believe that 300,000 Africans could die from the coronavirus, and nearly 30 million more will be pushed into poverty. Many parts of the continent are woefully unprepared for the catastrophe to come. Many African countries have a staggering shortage of ventilators. South Sudan, for instance, has only four ventilators for a population of 11 million, while Somalia has none. More than a third of all Africans do not have access to water, making it more difficult for these populations to protect themselves from the virus. Nearly 60 per cent of African city-dwellers, moreover, live in overcrowded slums, where physical distancing is difficult, if not impossible, to implement.
It would be incorrect to consider the entire continent as a single bloc. Some countries are better prepared than others, and have greater means to face the ongoing pandemic head-on. North African nations – which thus far have the highest infection rates, as a result of proximity to Europe, greater frequency of travel and more widespread testing – are currently among the most prepared. Most have enforced some degree of lockdown, albeit with mixed results. And while South Africa has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Sub-Saharan Africa, it also is the continent’s second-largest economy.
Unfortunately, the continent’s lesser developed and more unstable regions have yet to successfully enforce new social measures, or begin mass-testing campaigns.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in point. Kinshasa’s weak healthcare system is already under strain from ongoing bouts of cholera, ebola and an unprecedented measles outbreak. Medical staff also have to look after victims of violence in the country’s volatile east – a region that is now seeing its first cases of Covid-19, too. And unlike previous outbreaks, this one is seeing a low influx of relief funds, as donor countries struggle to deal with the same issue in their own borders. A lack of transparency and Kinshasa's militarised response to Ebola since 2015 have eroded trust in the government, paving the way for conspiracy theories and resistance to public-health safety measures within the local population. These long-standing problems are likely to diminish the effectiveness of Kinshasa’s coronavirus response.
While each nation on the continent has to overcome a unique set of problems to combat the coronavirus efficiently, one thing is now clear: if Africans are to see this pandemic through without suffering catastrophic damage to their economies and their lives, they will need the rest of the world’s help. And if their nations are allowed to become a safe haven for the virus, they will inevitably birth new waves of global outbreaks in the future.
The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa has already called for a $100bn safety net to curb the spread of Covid-19. G20 nations have agreed to freeze loan repayments for low-income countries until the end of 2020, and called upon the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to do the same. The UAE, meanwhile, has already set an example by continuing its own aid missions to some of Africa’s poorest nations. Yesterday, Abu Dhabi dispatched a plane carrying 18 tonnes of medical supplies and food to Mauritania. The Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation has distributed 824 tonnes of food to 30,000 people in Somalia, and Sharjah charity The Big Heart Foundation has also pledged $1 million to boost healthcare services and distribute food aid in the DRC.
As the world's strongest economies struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, leaders would do well to remember that a far greater, but equally important challenge will be maintaining their commitments to their fellow human beings in the countries that are less well-equipped to face this global health crisis. An international effort is needed to prevent those places from becoming a staging ground from which the pandemic could surge once again.