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Covid-19 and Africa: Vulnerabilities and Responsibilities in Preventing Famine

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

The first report of a confirmed Covid-19 infection in Sub-Saharan Africa came out on 27 February from Nigeria. Since then, albeit a relatively slow process, the confirmed cases have covered all the countries throughout the continent. From Melinda Gates’ apocalyptic warning of “you’re going to see [bodies out on the street] in countries in Africa” to the World Bank’s projection of severe economic recession, many are forecasting how the pandemic will worsen already existing socioeconomic and political issues throughout the continent. In late April, the UN warned of a global famine of ‘biblical proportions’ within months, Africa being by far the most vulnerable. While such ‘apocalyptic’ framings of Africa are reminiscent of the usual stereotypical representation of the continent, the moment calls for greater attention towards responsibilities of various political actors to prevent any of that from happening.

Opinion pieces and a myriad of analyses are piling up by the day questioning and addressing the multifaceted immediate and possible long-term consequences of the pandemic in Africa. Most focus on the potential humanitarian and economic crises that will result from the disruption of humanitarian and economic operations in many countries. Others also write about how authoritarian regimes are capitalizing on state-of-emergency measures established to slow down and combat the spread of the infection. In a broader reflection, some also draw attention to how media coverage of the pandemic is recycling stereotypical portrayals of the continent. Still others consider this global pandemic and its potential effect in weakening neoliberal, neo-colonial global structural relations as a catalyst to decolonize the continent. Another article also draws attention to how different global actors are predicting ‘apocalypse’ in Africa reflecting stereotypical bias despite the fact that it is the West that is currently largely suffering from the human and economic costs of the pandemic. In the midst of all these debates and discussions, ‘food insecurity’ and hunger pose a serious challenge for a continent that is home to the largest proportion of the world’s population affected by ‘food-insecurity’ and hunger.

Even before the pandemic outbreak, ‘food security’ and risk of famine in various countries of the continent were at an alarming state. The 2019 FAO regional report on food security in Africa, published just before the pandemic claimed global attention, noted the rising trend in hunger, particularly since 2014, due to climate shocks, armed conflict and slowing economic growth. The WFP 2020 Global Hotspots Report also forecasted an escalating risk of hunger in Africa during 2020. Another recently released WFP Global Report on Food Crisis indicates that more than half of the 135 million people worst affected by acute food insecurity globally live in Africa. The recent UN warning of possible famines of ‘biblical proportions’ considers this already worsening state of food insecurity to be exacerbated by the pandemic and the multitudes of disruptions it is causing on humanitarian and economic operations of countries that are already vulnerable.

Most notable in these disruptions of the usual operations of both humanitarian and economic sectors are the various measures different countries on the continent are implementing. Malawi’s 21-day lockdown measure by the middle of April was challenged by protests that raise economic and political questions. Zimbabwe declared a state of emergency before any report of confirmed cases, which resulted in stress on the already fragile economic and unemployment situation. In Ethiopia, a five-month state of emergency was declared by the end of March, which is affecting the ongoing tense and fragile political transition of the country. The elections scheduled for August are now indefinitely postponed. The informal economy in Uganda faced unexpected hardship following lockdown orders by the end of March. Such measures being taken by many countries throughout the continent will have a significant impact oin many parts of the society, most importantly in areas that are prone to humanitarian crisis and armed conflict. Whilst mass starvation and hunger are dire challenges in the face of the disruption of humanitarian and economic operations; there is another dimension to the occurrence of famines that has to do with political strategies of political actors engaged in conflict.

In global and regional reports on food insecurity, like the ones mentioned above, armed conflict is identified as the leading driver of food insecurity. This reflects studies of contemporary famines which have indicate that famines could have been facilitated by conflict actors in order to advance their political and military aims. Recent years have not only seen the rising trend of ‘food insecurity’ in Africa: escalation of conflicts in many countries was also a major trend, while their complexity also increased with more conflicts taking place within states. Changes in the nature and complexity of political violence and conflicts have seen a decrease in fatalities but a substantial increase in internal displacement. There are currently estimated twenty-five million internally displaced people throughout Africa, of which 85% come from eight countries. Not surprisingly, five of these eight countries are also listed by the WFP report as the most severely affected by food insecurity during 2019. Displaced people are now faced with the potential impacts of the pandemic and the ‘lockdown’ measures that are being used to combat the pandemic, potentially leading to famine.

Both from academic works and policy reports, we have good reason to believe that famines have a peculiar nature that deserves attention outside the humanitarian crisis framing. Famine has been known to be instrumental in political conflicts by different actors to advance their interests. This brings forth the issue of responsibility/accountability of political actors for mass starvation and famines, which has been a challenging and overlooked task so far. Our current understanding of mass starvation and famines as political acts of omission or commission indicates that political actors have to assume responsibility and accountability to prevent their occurrence. In the current context, such political violence and armed conflicts need to be resolved, at least for the time being, for example, through ceasefires. Unexpectedly, there have been positive developments with regards to ceasefires since the pandemic outbreak. On 3 April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reported ‘[i]n Africa, parties to conflict in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Libya, South Sudan and Sudan have accepted the call’ referring to his call for a ceasefire on 23 March. There is a greater chance that unless such political conflicts are resolved, combined with the pandemic and the potential economic/humanitarian crisis that might follow will result in a ripe environment for famine in many parts of Africa.


Fisseha Fantahun Tefera is a doctoral student within the Peace and Development Program of the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. He is currently working within the research project ‘Famines as Mass Atrocities: Reconsidering Violence, Memory and Justice in Relation to Hunger’.


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