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COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa: Vulnerability of the region could result in catastrophic consequences

With a population of over one billion, sub-Saharan Africa makes up a significant proportion of the global population but is one the most underdeveloped regions in the world. As a result, it is feared that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate existing or create new devastating economic, health and security issues in the region. At the time of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic many countries in the region had not reported a single case but, as of August, cases exceeded one million despite a huge shortage of testing. Lack of testing, economic and political instability and existing health crises contribute to making the impact of COVID-19 largely hidden but potentially catastrophic.

Huge shortages of testing capabilities and resistance from some governments has meant that the true extent of the virus in the region is largely undocumented. The expansive geographic spread of COVID-19 across the region seems to indicate that there is a vast amount of unreported infections and deaths. Not only does this make the situation difficult to monitor and bring help to those affected it also could result in dangerous future transmission. New York State’s population numbers 20 million, over fifty times smaller than that of sub-Saharan Africa, but has conducted over a million more tests. Another issue with this level of testing is that it hides the effects of COVID-19 on the region from the global community who use the low numbers as reason to focus on their domestic issues. The race amongst wealthy countries for testing facilities and future vaccine procurement is evidence of poorer regions being left behind.

The IMF has stated in its World Economic Outlook report in June that that it expects the region to contract by 3.2% this year. Having already secured over $15bn in financial aid to the region, the IMF argue that hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed as well as resilient reform measures in order for a recovery from the effects of the pandemic. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) there were 15 countries with active armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019. Of those seven were classed as high-intensity armed conflicts: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. This makes effective policy making to combat the virus extremely difficult.

Many countries in the region are already struggling with other health crises. The Democratic Republic of Congo recently declared a new Ebola outbreak in Équateur province in the north-west, whilst also facing a large measles outbreak which has seen over 6,000 deaths in 2020. The healthcare systems are much more stretched in the region anyway with a significant lack of facilities compared to elsewhere in the world. Many are without electricity, required medicines and adequate intensive care units (ICUs).