As the coronavirus pandemic seeps into more corners of the world, sub-Saharan Africa has so far come out relatively unscathed. But there are signs the virus is now starting to make its way across the vast region — and as it does, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, Nigeria, could face some of the sharpest losses. Like most of its African peers, Nigeria has an extremely vulnerable and overtaxed health care system that could buckle under the weight of an outbreak. But even if it somehow evades a wider contagion, the growing number of coronavirus cases elsewhere in the world will still risk tipping the country into crisis by slashing demand for its vital oil exports.
Explaining Africa’s Late Arrival
One of the puzzling mysteries of the global coronavirus outbreak is why more cases have not been confirmed in sub-Saharan Africa, especially given the region’s relatively fragile health infrastructure, significant economic ties to China (the epicenter of the outbreak) and close proximity to Europe (which has had the second-most confirmed coronavirus cases to date, after China).
There are some reasons that might explain why Africa has yet to see such a large breakout of the coronavirus, the first being the relatively limited movement of people between the continent and the rest of the world. African countries accounted for just 5 percent of global international tourist arrivals in 2018, according to the World Tourism Organization. And roughly half of those tourists visited North Africa, not sub-Saharan Africa. African tourists, meanwhile, only accounted for 3.5 percent of global international outbound tourists in 2018.
While many African countries have close economic ties with Beijing, there is actually very little non-business travel by Chinese tourists to sub-Saharan Africa and an even lower amount of non-business travel by sub-Saharan African tourists to China. Connectivity and travel to Europe — particularly former colonial powers like France and the United Kingdom — is much more common. It is thus little surprise that the first cases in sub-Saharan Africa have come just a few weeks after cases in Europe first began popping up.