COVID-19 is the third major outbreak affecting Africa in the new millennium following the HIV-AIDS crisis of the early 2000s and Ebola outbreak of 2013-16. Both these health crises impacted the continent severely and the ensuing loss of lives was very high. Therefore, in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak, African states would be keen to contain the spread and ensure that the negative impact remains limited to the maximum extent possible. It is interesting to note that so far, compared with China, Europe and the United States (US), Africa remains relatively less affected due to the corona virus. In fact, as of 28th March 2020, less than 5000 people have been infected by the virus in the continent of nearly 1.2 billion people. South Africa appears to be the worst affected country in Africa with 1187 cases and hence, the country is in a lockdown. Other major countries such as Algeria (454) and Egypt (576) have reported higher numbers as well. Surprisingly, Nigeria, the most populous African country, so far, has had only 89 confirmed cases. However, it must be kept in mind that numbers in Africa have steadily increased in the past few days and the next few weeks will be crucial in terms of planning and implementing the appropriate response, testing and taking care of affected citizens and mitigating the economic impact. As the entire world is struggling to contain the spread of the corona virus and is implementing drastic measures such as complete lockdown, restriction on movement, closure of airports and cancellation of domestic as well as international flights, it would be pertinent to revisit the past two outbreaks and their impact. It will also help us to put the current crisis posed by COVID-19 in perspective.
In the 1990s, AIDS spread through Africa rapidly and most governments were lethargic in their response to it. Although the entire continent faced the challenge of the spread of AIDS, Southern African region was the worst hit. In 1999, it was estimated that nearly 10 per cent of the South African population, i.e. 4 million, was HIV-positive and that nearly 500,000 had already lost their lives due to AIDS. However, the South African government failed to respond to the crisis in time. In fact, despite repeated warnings and availability of scientific data, the then President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki appeared non-serious about the threat of AIDS and its devastating impact.
The crisis was so grave that in 2000, as per the United Nations’ AIDS agency data, 250,000 people died due to AIDS and that as per the World Health Organization (WHO), one-fifth of South African adult population was HIV-positive. There were estimates that if left unchecked, South Africa would lose 5 to 7 million people to AIDS in the next decade. The crisis was so severe that former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was forced to speak out publicly to urge the government to act. The crisis was at its peak during 1999-2002. It was estimated that during those three years, due to government inaction, in South Africa alone, 365,000 people died prematurely including 35,000 babies. However, the AIDS outbreak was not limited to South Africa. Other Southern African states such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Eswatini and Zambia were also severely affected due to AIDS. In 2001, the percentage of the adult population affected by AIDS was as high as 27 per cent in Botswana, 25 per cent in Zimbabwe, 14.4 per cent in Zambia and 9.7 per cent in Mozambique.With the combination of government efforts, public education, international assistance and community awareness has helped to limit the spread and further growth of AIDS. However, even now, compared with other regions of the world, the percentage of the HIV-positive adult population remains high in Southern Africa.
Nearly a decade after the AIDS crisis, Africa was faced with the challenge of Ebola in 2013-16. AIDS had devastated Southern Africa whereas Ebola was mainly concentrated in West African states. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were the worst affected countries due to Ebola. During 2013-2016, Ebola claimed 11,315 lives with Liberia recording the highest deaths. There were 4800 deaths in Liberia and nearly 11,000 people were infected due to Ebola. At the peak of the crisis in mid-2014, Liberia was reporting nearly 300-400 cases every week. The outbreak was so severe that in many countries, entire communities were quarantined. In Sierra Leone, even Christmas celebrations were cancelled. Moreover, in Liberia, underscoring the social impact of the Ebola, which spreads through simple human touch, traditional greeting and burial practices had to be changed.
As the spread of Ebola was contained in West Africa, in August 2018, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) faced the Ebola outbreak. In the last 18 months, DRC lost an estimated 2,200 lives due to Ebola and in fact as recently as on 9thMarch, 2020, the last Ebola patient was discharged in the DRC and there has been no new cases in the preceding two weeks. It was estimated that the overall cost of the Ebola crisis (2013-16) was as high as $ 53 billion and economies of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were put under great strain. During the outbreak, as hospitals and health care resources were tied up to fight Ebola, other diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria claimed 10, 623 lives.
COVID-19 and Impact on Africa
Compared with the AIDS crisis and Ebola outbreak, COVID-19 has not claimed as many livestill now. However, the effect of COVID-19 is likely to be multi-dimensional and will take some time before the actual estimates of socio-economic losses could be measured. Loss of lives and strain on limited health care facilities is obviously a major concern for many African states. Given the severity of challenge, drastic measures like complete lockdown, closing borders and cancellation of flights are resulting in greater economic pain for developing economies of Africa. It is expected that the rate of poverty reduction in Africa would fall due to COVID-19. In fact, the impact in terms of slowing down of poverty alleviation would be greater than that of South Asia. Moreover, restriction on movement will make it harder for many people to access and buy food.
As a result ofCOVID-19, the entire world economy is headed for a recession in 2020. It is likely to affect Africa as well. Therefore, Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed had urged the Group of 20 (G-20) economies to provide debt relief and $ 150 billion to Africa as an emergency funding to better manage the ill-effects of COVID-19. Given the heavy debt burden of many states, resilience capacity to stem off the economic crisis is limited. Therefore, African finance ministers had already called for $ 100 billion in “immediate emergency economic stimulus”. Besides, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, in 2020, Africa’s economic growth is likely to fall by half from 3.2 per cent to 2 per cent and owing to dramatic fall in global oil prices, oil-exporting nations are likely to lose $ 65 billion in revenues. It will further curtail the capacity of states like Nigeria and Algeria to revive their economic growth.
It is also worrisome that as the world is gearing up to focus on COVID-19, terrorist activities continue unabated in Africa. On 23rdMarch, 2020, Islamic State terrorists in Northern Mozambique raided and captured the town of Mocimba da Praia in Cabo Delgado province. The town is located close to an area where natural gas projects worth about $ 60 billion are being developed. Meanwhile, in West Africa, on 24thMarch, 2020, in a raid on an island in the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram terrorists killed 92 Chadian soldiers. It was the deadliest attack launched by Boko Haram on Chad yet.Both attacks point towards the capacity and willingness of terror organizations to mount challenges for national governments, which are currently distracted and are preparing to fight COVID-19. More such incidents could also be expected in the coming weeks and months.
Therefore, although COVID-19 has not affected Africa directly in terms of losses in lives as gravely as it has Italy or Spain; it is likely to impact socio-economic prospects of many states and consequently, the well-being of majority of African population. COVID-19 is likely to further strain the already stretched healthcare systems in Africa and will also check the seriousness of governments in tackling this challenge. Moreover, continuing security challenges like terrorism amidst weak state capacity and a major health crisis will certainly test the capabilities of African states and their resilience. It is clear that although healthcare challenges like COVID-19 are not new for Africa; their impact is likely to be more multi-dimensional than the previous two crises faced by Africa in the new millennium.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
 “Coronavirus in Africa Tracker: How many covid-19 cases & where? [Latest]”, African Arguments, March 26, 2020, at: https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/26/coronavirus-in-africa-tracker-how-many-cases-and-where-latest/ (Accessed March 29, 2020)
 Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence, Simon&Schuster, London, 2013, pp. 673-678
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), UNAIDS Report on the global AIDS epidemic, Geneva, 2012, pp. A5-A6
 Tom Miles, “West Africa’s Ebola outbreak cost $ 53 billion-study”, Reuters, October 24, 2018, at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-ebola-cost/west-africas-ebola-outbreak-cost-53-billion-study-idUSKCN1MY2F8 (Accessed March 26, 2020)
 Rob Vos, Will Martin and David Laborde, “How much will global poverty increase because of COVID-19?”, IFPRI Blog: Issue Post, March 20, 2020, at: https://www.ifpri.org/blog/how-much-will-global-poverty-increase-because-covid-19 (Accessed March 26, 2020)
 William Moseley, “How will COVID-19 affect Africa’s food systems”, African Arguments, March 25, 2020, at: https://africanarguments.org/2020/03/25/covid-19-africa-food-systems/ (Accessed March 26, 2020)
 Cristina Krippahl, “Africa gears for COVID-19 pandemic's economic fallout”, Deutsche Welle, March 24, 2020, at: https://www.dw.com/en/africa-gears-for-covid-19-pandemics-economic-fallout/a-52901775 (Accessed March 26, 2020)
 Matthew Hill, “Islamic State Claims Bold Raid on Strategic Mozambique Town”, Bloomberg, March 25, 2020, at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-25/islamic-state-claims-raid-on-mozambique-town-site-says (Accessed March 26, 2020)
AFP, “Boko Haram kills 92 Chadian soldiers in seven-hour attack”, The Guardian, March 24, 2020, at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/boko-haram-kills-92-chadian-soldiers-in-seven-hour-attack (Accessed March 26, 2020)