Road to Recovery: COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Nile Johnson

What you can do:

  • Donate to GAVI The Vaccine Alliance (COVAX), a program ensuring equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine
  • Raise awareness on the true economic situation of African countries
  • Call your congressperson to advocate for US involvement in the distribution of vaccines in Africa

At first glance, it appears that Africa has avoided the worst of the pandemic. Despite having 14% of the world’s population, Sub-saharan Africa accounts for just 3% of known cases and deaths, and according to the IMF in 2020 its economy shrank by less than the global average [1].

In spite of the promising data, there are worrying signs. For one, the economic impact in African countries is much worse than the data provided by the IMF. Since Sub-saharan Africa’s population is growing at 2.7% a year, GDP needs to grow at least as fast, or incomes will shrink  [2]. In 2019, the economy shrank for the first time in 25 years and approximately 32 million people fell into extreme poverty (earning below $1.90 a day), erasing five years of progress [3]. Even if African economies shrank by less than the global average, they are less prepared to withstand a contraction than the economies of wealthier countries.

The IMF data also ignores the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The shock of the pandemic came when Sub-Saharan Africa was already vulnerable. African countries rely heavily on commodities, which is problematic because commodity prices are extremely volatile, more so than other goods. The commodities supercycle driven by Chinese demand for oil, metals and minerals that increased prices for these goods came to an end in 2014 [4]. When COVID-19 spread across the world, global demand plunged and commodity reliant economies were besieged by obstacles. Commodity prices that were already low from the end of the Chinese supercycle decreased even further, heavily affecting the economy.

Similarly, African countries that relied on tourism were devastated. GDP fell by 12.9% in Mauritius and 15.9% in the Seychelles last year, as beach resorts suffered [5]. Botswana’s economy contracted by almost 10% as the number of foreigners on safaris shrank drastically [6]. Oil-exporting countries were similarly affected. In 2020 their economies shrank by an average of 4%, versus 0.4% among oil importers (excluding South Africa) [7].

The economic situation of Sub-Saharan states is especially problematic considering that when it comes to how to cushion the economic shock of COVID-19.  Sub-Saharan governments have fewer options than richer countries because Sub-Saharan countries cannot borrow as cheaply. As a result, on average they spent just 3% of GDP to respond to the crisis, compared with about 5% in the IMF’s group of “emerging markets” and more than 7% in rich countries [8]. Whereas central banks in advanced economies have pursued radical policies, those in Africa have stuck to policies that mitigate potential macroeconomic risks. Only about half have cut interest rates. The difference is that western countries are able to do “whatever it takes” while Africa is left with “whatever is possible.”

While the West is expecting a rapid, vaccine-fuelled recovery, the damaging effects of the pandemic will drag on in Sub-saharan Africa. Whereas rich countries aim to vaccinate most people by the middle of this year, John Nkengasong, the head of CDC Africa, is aiming for 60% of Africans to be vaccinated by the end of next year [9]. Nevertheless, this goal may only be optimistic. According to estimates by the Economist, most people will not be inoculated until mid-2023 or early 2024 [10]. As such, Africa may suffer waves of infection after the disease has ebbed in the rich world. This will cause more death and suffering as well as further economic strife. What’s worse is that it may also allow new variants to evolve, which could endanger people globally. It is important here to look at other countries’ examples in aiding African countries. China has offered to make its SinoVac vaccine available to African countries and Guinea, Argentina, and Chile are some examples of developing countries using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine [11]. While China and Russia’s intentions in helping African countries may not be entirely benevolent, sharing vaccine privilege with the developing world is necessary in mitigating the fallout from COVID-19 in recipient countries and the world. The United States needs to follow suit considering that they are the second largest supplier of vaccines at 103 million vaccines manufactured [12]. If China and Russia are providing vaccines to the developing world to further national interests, then the US has more reason to follow suit.

Repeated waves would worsen the financial crises in many African countries. The IMF has estimated a shortfall of $130-$410 billion which is worth 8%-24% of regional GDP (2020-2023 period) to pay for the COVID-19 fallout [13]. If that gap is not filled, it will be hard for some countries to avoid defaulting on debt or slashing spending on public services—or both.

Sub-Saharan governments are on average spending more than 30% of the revenue they raise on paying debts which is up from about 20% before the pandemic [14]. Over half of the low-income Sub-Saharan countries are in “debt distress” or at high risk of it [15]. Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, highlighted the risks faced this year by Zambia, Ghana and Ethiopia, in particular [16]. Concerningly enough, the latter two were among the world’s fastest-growing economies over the past five years.

Talk of debt crises in Africa can provoke a sense of déjà vu. Just twenty years ago, 30 African countries had big chunks of their sovereign debt forgiven. This time around, things are not as simple. Governments owe large sums to commercial creditors (roughly 43% of all government debt) and to China’s government (16%) [17]. Last year the IMF provided $16 billion in loans with few strings attached, to help African countries respond to the pandemic and prevent liquidity crises [18]. Nevertheless, most countries will soon exhaust their emergency allocations and lenders’ pockets are not bottomless.

African countries need a comprehensive debt-restructuring and debt-cancellation program. However, this presents its own problems. If the West and China provide debt relief, it must be done in a way where African countries will not use that money to pay off another creditor. African governments worry that if their private debt is restructured, rating agencies will downgrade them, making it harder for them to borrow in the future. Using funds with a focus on debt payments will only exacerbate the issues caused by COVID-19.

As Sub-Saharan leaders look to the world for funds, a reminder is needed about the limits of aid. Africa receives $60 billion every year in aid [19]. However, most aid is not spent on citizens but rather services from donors such as consultation. 20% of aid in 2012 even went back to donor countries as debt repayment [20]. A lot of aid is also wasted by going to governments that lack the institutions or policy to further development. Instead of benefiting the local populace, the funds are used to shore up political power or sucked out through corruption. Donor funding helps keep African leaders in power without accountability. By propping up governments with Western aid, African leaders have little incentive to listen to their constituents because they are not the ones who give them power. Weak governance and bad spending habits will only exacerbate the effects of the pandemic. As such, direct benefits to the people like purchasing testing kits and vaccines should be pursued. In addition, rather than direct aid, Africans should be allowed more opportunities to study abroad. Two thirds of Africa’s population is less than 35 and Africa has the lowest number of doctors per capita in the world [21]. If the goal of aid is to improve the welfare of people abroad, in the spirit of COVID-19, it will make sense to attempt to improve Africa’s health infrastructure.

Africa’s fiscal woes will cause long-term harm. When revenues are tight the first thing to go is the development budget. More than half of African countries cut capital spending last year despite dire road conditions, bottlenecks in ports, and half of the population living without electricity.

Economic issues caused by COVID-19 have disproportionately affected the poor. While surveys focusing on employment security have found that Sub-Saharan Africa has been less susceptible to job loss (formal and informal), this does not mean that the people have been immune [22]. Households in Sub-Saharan countries have reported concerning increases in food insecurity. In the region, 45% of families reported “being worried about running out of food in the last 30 days” [23]. In December, South Sudan reported 72% of households going an entire day without a meal, Nigeria reported 75% of households skipping a meal, and Malawi reported just under 66% of households being hungry but not eating [24]. All this data has been attributed to a lack of funds among families. The pandemic has had disastrous effects on food security by virtue of disrupted supply chains and the Subsequent rise in prices. It can be assumed that increased difficulty in acquiring food only serves to disproportionately affect the poor who already face obstacles providing for themselves and their families. What is promising is that despite a tendency for economic shocks to limit access to services like health care, a majority of households report that they received medical attention when they needed it. All countries except the Central African Republic reported at least 75% of respondents being able to receive medical attention when they needed it [25].

To overcome the short-term money loss, the number of children working has increased. School closings and lack of funds in the education sector have contributed to this trend. When children drop out of school to work, it helps families put food on the table in the short term, but it blights children’s future prospects. Without education, they will struggle to escape from a life of poverty. The effects could last more than a generation. Most of the dropouts will be girls, since many families favour sons when they can afford to send only some of their children to school. The girls who drop out will not only earn less but are also likely to start having babies sooner, and to have more of them. The link between female education and family size is strong everywhere. Globally, women with no formal schooling tend to have about six children, whereas those with secondary education have roughly two [26]. This matters because better-educated mothers tend to lavish education on their smaller families. Before covid-19 hit, Africa was in the middle of a demographic transition (Larger families→Smaller families).

In the next few years governments in Sub-Saharan Africa will face two huge challenges: vaccines and finance. Problematically, a few have not fully grasped the urgency of the situation. South Africa, for example, is spending a fortune bailing out the national airline over buying vaccines [27]. Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, casts doubt on whether they even work. “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations,” he said, “then vaccinations for aids…malaria and cancer would have been found”[28].

Most African governments, however, are eager to get vaccines as fast as possible. The biggest problem is that it will take time for the world’s vaccine-makers to churn out enough for everyone. Under COVAX, a global vaccine scheme largely funded by donors, governments are trying to get enough for 20% of people in poor countries by the end of this year [29]. The African Union has separately secured 670 million vaccine doses, roughly enough for a further 25% of Africans, from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, though it is unclear when they will arrive [30]. Some countries are also negotiating directly with suppliers, including Chinese and Russian ones.

The stakes are high. By affecting their health, wealth and education, COVID-19 endangers the future of Africa’s largest-ever generation. On the plus side, vaccine roll-outs may accelerate once rich nations have inoculated most of their people. Commodity prices may rise again as the global economy recovers. Investors’ appetite for risk may be big enough to enable African governments to keep borrowing. But the weight of evidence points towards further waves of the virus hitting beleaguered health systems across Africa. Though some economies are well placed to rally as the pandemic fades, more of them, including the biggest, will struggle to recover. Given Sub-Saharan Africa’s weak medical infrastructure, out-of-the-box solutions are necessary to combat the pandemic. To be cost-effective, data modeling assists governments in predicting the evolution of the pandemic against prescribed quarantine and social distancing measures. In Rwanda, despite a limited availability of diagnostic kits, data modeling allowed the government to come up with a solution that used a pool testing method that reduced the number of tests required for an accurate infection count [31]. Even with its inherent benefits data modeling capacity remains low. Building better health and planning foresight capacity will, first and foremost, help Africans mitigate the damages of the pandemic. Africans have shown remarkable resilience in response to the virus but the toughest years are yet to come.

Works Cited:

[1] “COVID-19 and Africa: Socio-Economic Implications and Policy Responses.” OECD, 7 May 2020, 

[2] “GDP Growth (Annual %) – Sub-Saharan Africa.” Data, 

[3] “World Economic Situation And Prospects: October 2019 Briefing, No. 131 | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations, United Nations, 

[4] Paul Ekins Professor of Resources and Environment Policy at University College London, et al. “Are We Entering a Commodity Supercycle?” BRINK, 28 Feb. 2021, 

[5] “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 

[6] “Overview.” World Bank, 

[7] “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 

[8]  “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 

[9] Anna, Cara. “Official: Africa Needs COVID-19 Vaccine for 60% in 2-3 Years.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 

[10]  “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper,

[11] Welle, Deutsche. “Opinion: ‘Vaccine Privilege’ Could Haunt the West: DW: 03.02.2021.” DW.COM, 

[12] McCarthy, Niall, and Felix Richter. “Infographic: The Countries Dominating Covid-19 Vaccine Production.” Statista Infographics, 23 Mar. 2021,,India%20has%20produced%2042.4%20million. 

[13] “Sub-Saharan Africa: A Difficult Road to Recovery.” IMF, 22 Oct. 2020, 

 [14] Leke, Acha, et al. “The Great Reset: Relaunching African Economies.” Brookings, Brookings, 1 Mar. 2021, 

[15] International Monetary Fund. Strategy, Policy. “The Evolution of Public Debt Vulnerabilities In Lower Income Economies.” IMF, 

[16] “Zambia, Government of: Reports: Moody’s.” Zambia, Government of | Reports | Moody’s, 

[17] Africa’s Growing Debt Crisis: Who Is the Debt Owed to? 

[18]  “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper,

[19] “Net Official Development Assistance and Official Aid Received (Current US$).” Data, 

[20] “How Much Aid Money Is Spent in Donor Countries? – Get the Data.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Feb. 2014, 

[21] Wine, Bobi, and Greg Mills. “Aid Has Failed. COVID-19 Both Exposes This and Offers the Chance for a Reset.” African Arguments, 27 Apr. 2020, 

[22] Heitzig, Chris. “Figure of the Week: Sub-Saharan Africa Shows Resilience to the Effects of COVID-19, According to High-Frequency Phone Surveys.” Brookings, Brookings, 11 Dec. 2020, 

[23] “COVID-19 High-Frequency Monitoring Dashboard.” World Bank, 

[24] Lashitew, Addisu, and David Kanos. “Figures of the Week: The Effect of COVID-19 on Food and Income Security in Africa.” Brookings, Brookings, 9 July 2020, 

[25] Heitzig, Chris. “Figure of the Week: Sub-Saharan Africa Shows Resilience to the Effects of COVID-19, According to High-Frequency Phone Surveys.” Brookings, Brookings, 11 Dec. 2020, 

[26] “World Population & Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Wolfgang Lutz; William P. Butz; Samir KC – Oxford University Press, 12 Mar. 2021, 

[27] “Africa’s Recovery from Covid-19 Will Be Slow.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper,

[28] Dahir, Abdi Latif. “Tanzania’s President Says ‘Vaccines Don’t Work,’ Earning a Rebuff from the W.H.O.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2021, 

[29] “Covax: How Will Covid Vaccines Be Shared around the World?” BBC News, BBC, 24 Feb. 2021, 

[30] Bowker, John, and Simon Marks. “African Union Secures 270 Million Vaccines From Three Drugmakers.”, Bloomberg, [31] Travaly, Youssef, and Aretha Mare. “Learning from the Best: Evaluating Africa’s COVID-19 Responses.” Brookings, Brookings, 8 July 2020,

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