Officials From Africa’s Least Developed Countries Stress Major Challenges But Also Bright Spots in Tackling COVID-19

NEW YORK 16 June 2020 – Tackling health crises is not a new experience for Africa’s least developed countries (LDCs), but the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting larger-scale socio-economic challenges few of these vulnerable countries are prepared for.

In determining the extent to which the pandemic has impacted Africa’s thirty-three LDCs, government officials* acting as focal points for their respective governments, as well as United Nations officials met virtually on 11 June to discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and the mitigation measures being employed to stem the spread of the disease.

African officials shared lessons learned from treating past epidemics such as Ebola, which has led some countries to reactivate emergency response centers previously established to address that disease. However, with COVID-19, many LDCs on the continent are experiencing socio-economic impacts far beyond their capacity to manage. Projections for Sub-Saharan Africa alone, according to the IMF this past April, indicate a negative real GDP growth rate of -1.6 per cent in 2020.

From disrupted supply chains and high debt burdens to weak healthcare systems, lack of food security and less global trade demand the scale of the pandemic has put already vulnerable countries into a more fragile state of affairs.

Furthermore, African LDCs have had to make major compromises in the extent to which measures can be implemented and for how long. In implementing lockdowns, many LDCs face – in contrast to richer countries – a trade-off between protecting lives and saving livelihoods. As a result, some LDCs have only implemented partial lockdowns and some have implemented cash transfers and food assistance. 

Speaking at the opening of the meeting, Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States said “We know already that the least developed countries particularly African LDCs will feel disproportionately the impacts of the pandemic. COVID-19 has compounded existing development challenges. For all to see, it has laid bare the lags and utter fragility of sustainable development of African LDCs on so many fronts.”

While the pandemic is posing large scale systemic challenges, Africa’s LDCs are making major national efforts, albeit with limited resources, to quell the impacts.

Senegal has trialed the development of a $1 COVID testing kit that produces results in less than 10 minutes. Uganda, Ethiopia and other LDCs have responded to their first reported cases with aggressive contact tracing and isolation. Ethiopia completed a door-to-door survey in Addis Ababa in just three weeks. Meanwhile, in Zambia ethanol from drought resistant cassava has been turned into ethanol for hand sanitizers sold locally and to neighboring countries.

UNDP’s Chief Economist for Africa, Raymond Gilpin, stressed that strategic interaction is essential to allow African countries to build back better and attain the Sustainable Development Goals. Assistance with health support systems, building integrated crisis management and response systems as well as responses based on socio-economic impact assessments are crucial components of UNDP’s work.

The UN Resident Coordinators in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Malawi highlighted the UN’s work in those countries to ensure a rapid health response and a sustainable economic recovery based on socio-economic impact assessments.

A major UN conference, the Fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, which was due to take part in March 2021 in Doha to adopt a new ten-year programme of action for LDCs, has been postponed due to the pandemic. The Director for the Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS), Heidi Schroderus-Fox stressed that while a new timeline for the conference has had to be adopted, the Office is undertaking efforts to ensure momentum is maintained in spite of delays forced by the pandemic.

*National Focal Points are government officials from line ministries and government agencies of LDCs that are responsible for formulation of national economic development strategies and overseeing their implementation. The NFPs are tasked to coordinate with governments in the monitoring, follow-up and review of the Istanbul Programme of Action at the country level, and are a major communication channel between the LDCs and UN-OHRLLS.

Photo: COVID-19 in Mali. World Bank / Ousmane Traore