MS Risk Blog

Coronavirus in Southern Africa: More Than Just A Numbers Game

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Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) which has been rapidly spreading across the world at an alarming rate, southern Africa, or more accurately Africa, had been waiting with bated breath for the pandemic to eventually breach its territories.

Since COVID-19 was officially reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) by China on 31 December 2019, and eventually categorised as a global emergency by WHO on 30 January 2020, the region of southern Africa has responded in varied but largely preventative measures at its respective points of entry.

Out of the reported 403 cases of Coronavirus infections in the African continent, southern Africa has 210 confirmed cases to date (20 March 2020).  South Africa has confirmed 202 cases, Mauritius has reported 3 cases, Zambia has reported 2 cases, Namibia 2 cases and Eswatini has reported 1 case of COVID-19. So far in southern Africa there have been no reported deaths as a result of the infection.

Statistically speaking, the region has lagged behind the global curve for Coronavirus infections and deaths, however for southern Africa this is more than just a numbers game. This is a global crisis that has a very local impact. Without taking into account the rate of infections within the region, there has been an almost immediate economic impact that southern Africa has had to contend with as a result of COVID-19.  This is a factor that is likely to continue and may spell more economic trouble for the region if the outbreak is not contained. In addition to this, it will test the preparedness of the region for coronavirus. Any inadequacies in preparedness at a local level, is likely to affect the region and its stability, therefore this is also a testing of the efficacy of regional crisis cooperation.

From the onset of the outbreak southern Africa has been vulnerable to the wider economic consequences of Coronavirus. China, the United States, the European Union and United Kingdom are all some of the region’s biggest trade partners and southern Africa has not been impervious to the almost instantaneous negative economic effects that have come with virus outbreak. Since the outbreak African airlines have reportedly lost $400m as a result of having to suspend flights from China and later other affected parts of the world such as Italy. The airlines include Air Mauritius and South African Airways among others in Africa. In South Africa on 24 February it was reported that the Rand had weakened due to lack of investor confidence caused by the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Similarly, in Angola the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China contributed to projections of a drop in oil demand from China. In other parts of the region, especially those that have a strong reliance on tourism such as Namibia, Botswana, Madagascar and Mauritius, there were restrictions and subsequent cancellations of visas and entry for people coming from countries most heavily affected by COVID-19.

Several countries in the region, including South Africa which has the strongest economy in the area, have been struggling to stimulate their economies and any interruptions to some of the traditional streams of income through trade and investment could spell disaster for some countries like Zimbabwe that is already on the brink of economic disaster. The region had imposed some stringent measures against affected countries at the onset of the virus outbreak to prevent infiltration within its territories, and this may have delayed the outbreak of COVID-19, however the economic ramifications were felt. With the presence of COVID-19 in at least 5 countries in the region, it is likely to add further pressures to the economy as most of the fragile health services will begin to experience further strain. The economies in the region have already shown vulnerability to the outbreak before any cases of infection were reported, it is likely that the region will face further instability as a result of this as the timeframe and ability for containment is uncertain.

COVID-19 in southern Africa will test two things: the region’s preparedness and its ability to coordinate and cooperate effectively. The Coronavirus is the biggest threat to public health since the Ebola Crisis. Lessons from the Ebola, HIV , Malaria, Cholera and Measles outbreaks, as well as the world’s response to COVID-19, will all be examples the region can draw from to tailor its response to the Coronavirus. In some ways, southern Africa is in familiar territory because it is no stranger to the outbreak of contagious diseases, although it must be noted that it remains unclear how COVID-19 will behave in the region and therefore cannot guarantee sufficient preparedness. This is also taking into account that a fragile health system, as is the case in most of the countries in the region, is likely to affect the effectiveness of tackling the outbreak. There are also high numbers of the population that are affected with underlying health issues such as HIV and Tuberculosis and this stands to significantly impact how successfully Coronavirus can be contained.

A number of the health systems in southern Africa are fragile, however this is true in varying degrees within each country. One indication of this is that Zimbabwean President Mnangagwa has already declared a national disaster over Coronavirus on 18 March 2020, this despite there being no confirmed case of the virus in country.  On the other hand Zimbabwe has been battling a collapsing health system where a number of Zimbabweans have been seeking medical aid in countries like Zambia, an outbreak on the scale of what has occurred in China or Italy would be disastrous. While in South Africa on 19 March 2020, President Ramaphosa announced that he would build a fence along the border with Zimbabwe to stop infected people from entering South Africa this after he had earlier declared COVID-19 a national disaster. South Africa has one of the more developed health systems in sub-Saharan Africa, however it too reportedly has a limited availability of ICU beds. A spread that follows the trajectory of China could result in a high mortality rate in South Africa. Individual countries in the region may attempt to combat the outbreak unilaterally as it has been indicated by the actions of South Africa towards Zimbabwe, however the disparity in the resilience of each country’s health system within the region may mean regional cooperation is required to combat COVID-19. How effectively southern Africa can contain Coronavirus, is not just a numbers game but a matter of regional stability and economic wellbeing.