Peak of COVID-19 worsens extreme poverty and hunger problems in Africa

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Outside a bureau de change in Zimbabwe’s capital, hordes of people desperate for US dollars are being pushed against each other.

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Outside a bureau de change in Zimbabwe’s capital, hordes of people desperate for US dollars are being pushed against each other.

“That’s it, keep it tight,” some shout, trying to stop others from skipping the line to buy the money that might get them a rebate on commodities pegged to a local currency that quickly devalues.

Nearly two years after the start of a global pandemic, a new spike in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant is once again shutting down businesses, disrupting travel, rekindling fears of overwhelmed hospitals, and upsetting travel and health plans. vacations in countries around the world.

But in Zimbabwe and other African countries, the resurgence of the virus threatens the very survival of millions of people who have already been pushed to the brink by a pandemic that has devastated their economies. When putting food on the table isn’t obvious, concerns over whether to reunite with family members for the holidays or heed public announcements urging COVID-19 precautions fade into second plan.

“Yes, I’ve heard of the new variant, but it can never be worse than not eating anything at home right now,” says Joshua Nyoni, an employee of the furniture store, one of dozens of waiting outside the exchange. Like many others in the chaotic crowd, Nyoni alternately wears his face mask under his chin or puts it in his pocket.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, or ECA, noted in March that about 9 out of 10 extremely poor people in the world live in Africa. The ECA now warns that the economic effects already felt since the start of the pandemic in 2020 “will push an additional 5 to 29 million below the extreme poverty line”.

“If the impact of the pandemic is not limited by 2021, an additional 59 million people could suffer the same fate, which would bring the total number of extremely poor Africans to 514 million people,” the report said. agency.

The World Bank estimates that the economy fell from 2.4% growth in 2019 to a 3.3% contraction in 2020, plunging Africa into its first recession in 25 years.

“The economic disruption caused by COVID-19 has pushed hunger crises off a cliff,” Sean Granville-Ross, Africa regional director of the nonprofit Mercy Corps, told The Associated Press. .

Granville-Ross says his organization in 2021 saw “an alarming increase in needs” in regions such as the Sahel, West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa where some countries were experiencing already humanitarian crises and conflicts before COVID-19.

Concern is now mounting amid a spike in COVID infections in Africa, which currently accounts for around 9 million of the estimated 275 million cases worldwide.

The World Health Organization has for months described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports. But in mid-December, he said the number of new cases “is currently doubling every five days, the fastest rate this year,” as the delta and omicron variants increase infections. South Africa and Zimbabwe reported reduced numbers over the past week. , but the authorities remain cautious.

The renewed travel restrictions and possible lockdowns “will only push millions more into poverty and undermine the slight economic recovery that we have started to see,” said Granville-Ross.

Compared to the continent as a whole, where just over 7% of the population has received two injections of the coronavirus vaccine, Zimbabwe is considered a success story – even though only around 20% of its 15 million people have been fully vaccinated.

Amid continued hesitation, the government threatened to expand vaccine mandates. But for many people, fears of viral infection have taken a back seat to the more urgent task of finding enough money to feed their families.

Dozens of desperate residents seeking access to cash in an economy where money, especially the US dollar, is king, sleep outside exchange offices and banks, huddled together the others for days. The elderly, many of whom do not have masks or wear them improperly, form tight lines that meander for miles, waiting to retire their pensions.

“I’d rather spend my time here than stand in line for the vaccine,” Nyoni says, outside the crowded exchange office.

“If I catch the virus, they can quarantine me, treat me, or even feed me if I’m hospitalized,” he says. “But hunger is different: you cannot be quarantined because the family has nothing to eat. People watch you die.

Farai Mutsaka, The Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia