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Pandemic Exacerbates Existing Food Security, Economic Challenges in Africa

Nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The coronavirus pandemic has spread to dozens of countries in Africa over the last few weeks. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across 39 countries in Africa as of 30 March, with the highest concentration of cases (1,300) in South Africa and the highest number of deaths (29) in Algeria.

Countries are taking varied approaches to combat the virus’s spread in Africa, including a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Kenya and a three-week lockdown in South Africa.

“This is unprecedented, not only in our democracy, but also in the history of our country, that we will have a lockdown for 21 days to go out and wage war against an invisible enemy, coronavirus,” said South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Preexisting economic turmoil, famine, and health challenges exacerbate the threat COVID-19 poses across the continent. For example, South Africa is in a recession with a 29 percent unemployment rate, NPR reports. The nation also has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection; those immune-compromised individuals are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In Kenya, police clashed with citizens over the weekend as the curfew went into effect, The Washington Post reports. Police and security forces used tear gas and violence during a crackdown on people who were outside when the curfew went into effect, allegedly crowding people together—risking the spread of the virus.

Zimbabwe enters a “total lockdown” today over the virus, but many people in the country are prioritizing finding money for food and other necessities over social distancing recommendations, according to The Associated Press. Shuttered industry and high inflation of over 500 percent have left many Zimbabweans working as street vendors, and while police have tried to clear the streets in the lockdown, they have been largely unsuccessful. In addition, a widespread drought has brought about food scarcities.

Meanwhile, swarms of locusts have affected crops across East Africa, threatening livelihood and food supplies in Kenya and Ethiopia, among other nations. According to a Gallup news report, “Although aid agencies are working with local governments to combat the locusts, they currently lack the equipment and funding they need, and amid the COVID-19 outbreak, experts can no longer travel to countries to help train the local communities to fight the spread of the pests. This poses tremendous risk for the communities affected, not only in Africa but also the Middle East, where the locusts are expected to spread in the next month.”

The locusts exacerbate existing food scarcity challenges. In Kenya, for example, 2019 Gallup surveys found nearly seven in 10 Kenyans said they had been unable to afford the food their families needed at times in the past year. In Ethiopia, 57 percent said they lacked money for food in the past year.

In early March, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization expanded its list of countries in need of external assistance for food, exacerbated by the locust swarms.

According to a UNDP news release today, “with an estimated 55 percent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights, and in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition.” Income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries, and fragile or under-resourced health systems are likely to be overwhelmed, the UNDP notes.

A UNDP-led COVID-19 Rapid Response Facility has been launched, and it will enable UNDP teams to offer immediate assistance to countries for their national response. An estimated minimum of $500 million is needed to support 100 countries—both with their responses to the pandemic and to prevent their economic collapse.

For more information and resources around COVID-19, please visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.