‘No country will be spared’ in sub-Saharan Africa: IMF

Region, already hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns and drop in oil prices, braces for a health crisis with few resources.

Burkina Faso
Rahinatou Diasso, 37, pushes a barrel filled with water that she bought from a privately-owned water tower, amid an outbreak of the coronavirus, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which the IMF says is one of the hardest hit countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by coronavirus [File Anne Mimault/Reuters]

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing an unprecedented health crisis from the coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic downturn that could drag on economies for years to come, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, warning: “No country will be spared.”

“It really is as bad of an economic hit as the region has seen in decades,” Abebe Aemro Selassie, director of the IMF’s African Department, said during a teleconference on Wednesday.

In its latest Regional Economic Outlook: Sub-Saharan Africa report, the IMF said that the region’s gross domestic product is expected to contract by 1.6 percent in 2020, a downward revision of 5.2 percentage points from predictions made six months ago. 

“Countries have been shut off capital markets – this crisis is unprecedented and calls for bold and decisive action,” Selassie stressed.

Immediate priority should focus on boosting health spending regardless of debt levels, providing targeted cash transfers for the most vulnerable communities, and hard-hit small- and medium-sized businesses.

Oil exporting countries – like the continent’s top producer Nigeria – are facing one of the sharpest declines in oil prices seen in many decades. This is particularly worrying during a public health emergency when resources are essential to keeping people alive and societies functioning.

Overwhelming weak healthcare systems

As of April 13, over 7,800 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across 43 countries in the region, with South Africa, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso most affected, according to the IMF.

The rapid spread of the virus, if left unchecked, threatens to overwhelm already weak healthcare systems.

“There are so many unknowns for Africa like how COVID-19 will interact with our young population, our hot weather. The governments are trying their best, but they have structural realities that make their response very difficult,” Mohammed Yahya, United Nations Development Programme representative to Nigeria, told Al Jazeera.

It does not help that the price of oil has recently plummeted leaving many commodity exporters with severe holes in their state budgets. Compounding the challenges, Official Development Assistance (ODA) from wealthy countries is down while debt burden skyrockets.

“It is more structural defaults that COVID-19 has exposed, such as overreliance on commodities, huge informal sectors, low tax base, and poor healthcare infrastructure,” Yahya added.

“There’s no curve to flatten when there’s no healthcare.”

‘Staying at home is a guarantee for hunger’

And lockdowns and quarantines, while seemingly an effective tactic implemented by developed economies to halt the spread of coronavirus, is simply not an option for the people who live hand-to-mouth and have limited access to social safety nets.

“I can afford to go to the supermarket and fill my fridge. But the average person doesn’t even have enough money for their next meal,” UNDP’s Yahya told Al Jazeera.

Quarantine and travel restriction measures have been implemented in 44 and 43 countries on the continent, respectively.

According to the IMF, these strict measures have imperilled livelihoods throughout the continent. There has already been social unrest in Nigeria and South Africa.

“Staying at home is a guarantee for hunger,” said Yahya.

Source: Al Jazeera