This is a fast-moving issue and should be read as correct at the date of publication (25.03.20).

Sub-Saharan Africa has been behind the global curve for coronavirus infections and deaths. However, in recent days, there has been a sudden rise in cases.

This Insight looks at how the virus has spread in sub-Saharan Africa and at African and global responses to the pandemic in the continent.

Coronavirus rates in the continent

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides regular updates on the incidence of the disease. At 19 March more than 600 cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in 34 countries in the continent. This compares with 47 cases one week previously.

By 25 March the number of cases had risen to 2,455. The WHO map below shows the geographic distribution of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa up to 18 March.

A map of Africa with the number of Covid-19 cases per country detailed.
Covid-19, WHO Africa, 19 March 2020.

National responses in sub-Saharan Africa

Accurate information on the responses of individual countries in sub-Saharan Africa is patchy.

Mauritius was the first country in Africa to impose a total lockdown on 19 March.

Uganda closed its borders on 21 March. President Yoweri Museveni said that all but emergency flights would not be permitted to land.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. It announced a tightening of restrictions on its 200 million people from 21 March. Public gatherings of over 50 people are now in place. Such restrictions apply to churches, mosques, social gatherings, football viewing centres and night clubs.

On 22 March Rwanda closed its borders. It banned all “unnecessary movements,” as the number of confirmed cases there reached 19. Agence France-Presse reported these to be some of the toughest measures in Africa:

Rwanda is closing its borders completely, except for goods and cargo and returning citizens, authorities said. Anyone arriving in Rwanda will be subject to a 14-day quarantine at designated locations.

South Africa has one of Africa’s best public health care systems. It has the largest number of confirmed cases with 504 as at 25 March. The South African Government announced a three-week lockdown of the country to begin on 26 March. In a televised address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said:

All shops and businesses will be closed except for pharmacies, supermarkets, petrol stations and health care providers as well as laboratories, banks and other essential financial services. Essential personnel including health care workers, emergency and security personnel necessary to the response will also be exempt.

The South African National Defence Force will be deployed to assist the South African Police Service.

Risks for sub-Saharan Africa

A sudden increase in the incidence of the disease will strain under-funded health care systems. On 23 March a number of African heads of state called for a US $100 billion stimulus package. They specifically called for a suspension of debt service payments to help the continent combat coronavirus.

For fragile states, those attending the meeting agreed that waiving repayment of both borrowed money and interest should be considered.

Lessons from the Ebola crisis

Commentators from the Overseas Development Institute have said lessons should be taken from the way in which Ebola was managed in Africa. In particular, the spread of a dangerous disease requires a response that goes beyond medical provision. It said:

Treating Ebola predominantly as a health crisis meant that the surge capacity and emergency funding characteristic of a large-scale humanitarian crisis were not triggered. Wider implications – for instance for food security, livelihoods and education – were neglected, and NGOs were unclear on how or where to engage. […] 

Covid-19 is not just a medical emergency: it is also upending the socio-economic life of the countries in its path. Recognising this now will be essential to tackling its wider effects.

The UK Government response

The Department for International Development (DFID) is supporting the UK’s global efforts to combat the outbreak of Covid-19. It is working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to respond to international requests for technical support.

The UK’s total aid commitment to the international coronavirus response currently stands at £241.5 million.

During his 11 March Budget statement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced additional UK aid spending to “mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the world’s most vulnerable countries.”

According to a press release by DFID on the same day, up to £150 million of new UK aid will go to the International Monetary Fund’s Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT). This helps developing countries deal with the short-term economic disruption caused by coronavirus, allowing them to focus their spending on tackling the outbreak.

The statement said that Covid-19 has already had a major impact on oil prices and global stock markets but money from the International Monetary Fund would reduce the impact on the global economy.

Up to 50 per cent of this new aid has been made available immediately. The rest will be released as needed.

Developing countries will qualify for support from the CCRT if they are extremely vulnerable to the rapid spread of the virus, and if they experience major financial problems (specifically, a loss of 10 percent of GDP, or a combination of loss of revenue and increase in spending equivalent to 10 percent of GDP

The £150 million announced on 11 March comes on top of £91 million of UK aid already allocated for the research of vaccines and diagnostic tests to combat coronavirus, and to support the WHO and developing countries to prevent the virus spreading.

In addition, on 12 March DFID announced that £500,000 of UK aid would be given to the Humanitarian-to-Humanitarian Network (H2H). H2H is a digital network of humanitarian responders. It aims to combat misinformation about the virus in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Support from international actors

Since the start of the outbreak, the WHO has been supporting African governments with early detection by providing Covid-19 testing kits to countries, training lab technicians and strengthening surveillance in communities. Forty-five countries in Africa can now test for Covid-19. At the start of the outbreak only two could do so.

The World Bank Group announced an additional US$2 billion in funding to help with the pandemic. This brings its total support for national health systems to US$14 billion. This funding is for disease containment, diagnosis, treatment, and the private sector. This funding will be available to all countries in need of assistance. It is not specifically for Africa.

Ethiopia received a delivery of 1.1 million testing kits, six million facemasks and 60,000 protective suits to be distributed across Africa from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

Further reading

Which African countries are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, The New Humanitarian.

Africa’s fragile health systems rush to contain coronavirus, The Guardian.

PM announces new funding in fight against spread of coronavirus, DFID.

About the authors: Dr Anna Dickson is Head of the International Affairs and Defence Section and Dr Jon Lunn is a researcher specialising in international development at the House of Commons Library.

Photo credit: Green and white masks, Mika Baumeister.