While the pandemic has swiftly spread all over the world, with the US being currently the new epicenter, Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), could be the next epicenter.
Rabat – UN officials state that the COVID-19 pandemic will probably kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and drive nearly 130 million into poverty and famine. They have also underscored that the continent suffers from a dire shortage of hospital beds and ventilators to deal with this pandemic.
In North Africa, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases so far has been limited, despite the region’s proximity to Europe. As of May 10, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco had a total of 12,818 cases and 735 deaths. Algeria has had the most deaths, with 502, followed by Morocco with 188, and Tunisia with 45 deaths, according to John Hopkins University Center.
Recognizing the vulnerability of their strained healthcare systems, North African countries have been proactive, closing airports, ports, borders, restricting travel, closing schools, cafes, mosques, establishing stay at home orders and setting up curfews. While in normal times, these would be considered extreme measures, they too often now seem necessary although temporary actions to halt the spread of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic broke out, these countries were already experiencing important economic and political problems, including rundown healthcare systems. Today, they are struggling to provide adequate stimulus packages to their economies.
In Morocco, the health budget currently represents some 5% of the national budget, against the 12% recommended by the WHO, and the health system remains marked by “deep geographic and socioeconomic inequalities”, according to the WHO.
This situation has raised questions about North Africa’s ability to manage the pandemic in the face of its economic, health, and governance concerns, as well as the ongoing fight against extremist violence. Understandably, there is concern about both the short and long-term socio-economic devastating consequences and about broader stability impacts of the virus in the coming years.
On the other hand, COVID-19 has given North African governments a break from protests, but this will not last long. Protesters were calling for a new political system in Algeria and more reforms and accountability in Morocco and Tunisia. All protests have been driven by the socioeconomic inequalities that have shaped the region, especially since the Arab Spring in 2011.
However, in a time of great insecurity, as today, fear has pushed people to accept existing political structures as a source of certainty and strength, generating a national feeling of solidarity that has given governments a relief. The pandemic has flattened the opposition and restricted the public’s craving for change.
While North African countries boast that younger populations are potentially less affected by the disease, as over 60% of the population is below thirty, all fear that the pandemic would engulf them, as they lack the infrastructure and resources to respond to the outbreak.
With regard to mitigating the economic impacts of COVID-19, responses have varied. Looking at border closures alone, Morocco and Tunisia must grapple with the significant economic losses which will undoubtedly result from a cratering tourism sector. As Steven Friedman of the University of Pennsylvania, shows, in Morocco and Tunisia, tourism contributes 19% and 15.9% to GDP, respectively. Algeria’s energy-dominated economy has never been contingent on tourism or trade. But it will take a major economic hit due to the current plummeting oil prices. The pandemic will permanently handicap the Algerian economy, which remains terribly dependent on hydrocarbon exports.
In the last two year, droughts have ravaged much of North Africa, including Morocco. But with COVID-19, unemployment has exploded exponentially. Already more than 900,000 employees are out of work. They are added to the 1.1 million who were unemployed in Morocco at the end of 2019. In Tunisia and Algeria, the unemployment rate has risen from almost 15% to 27% last March. In the three countries, there are already more than 5 million unemployed people.
It is high time, government thought about a possible migratory surge from North Africa to Europe. Today, all countries concerned ought to work as a chain and rethink the concept of security by working together to manage these flows through shared responsibility.
To address this unprecedented crisis, the Moroccan government has created a fund which has now reached over $3.5 billion. The state has indicated that it will support vulnerable sectors and has begun compensating some of the most defenseless affected citizens.
The Tunisian government put in place a fund through public donations to combat the virus. But the country’s economic challenges, with limited economic growth, high unemployment, high public-sector expenditures, and low GDP growth, make the strain of the pandemic even worse.
Similarly, Algeria has provided paid leave for mothers, preventing price gouging, and moved fast to ensure the importation of foodstuffs in order to avoid shortages.
The aftereffects of the pandemic are likely to highlight the policy failures that made the North African nations so fragile and susceptible to the virus in the first place. Economic mismanagement and underinvestment in infrastructure and human development have occasioned systems characterized by inequality and social instability.
Developed countries, and especially China, where the pandemic began, should provide financial assistance to developing African countries, which typically are left in the lurch during global economic downturns. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia urgently need large-scale funding to help maintain economic activity and jobs during the current pandemic.
These are challenging times for all countries, especially poor ones. To defeat COVID-19 and mitigate its overwhelming economic consequences, national solidarity, regional and global unity are badly needed.
Richer countries must come together to consolidate poorer countries’ public-health systems, including with debt relief, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also out of pragmatism; even if the pandemic is put under control at home, plights elsewhere and further waves of outbreaks will obstruct recovery everywhere.
To help this region and the whole of Africa rebound from this crisis, decision-makers must think about the recovery, in order to quickly repair the damage done by COVID-19, possibly by developing digital industries and investing in health care and vital areas like pharmaceuticals.
This major health crisis has highlighted the need to invest massively in hospitals and their equipment, something that would have been very difficult to implement without the crisis.