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U.N. Agency Fears 'Vulnerable' Africa May Suffer At Least 300,000 COVID-19 Deaths

So far, countries on the African continent have largely managed to dodge the brunt of the coronavirus. Even as the global pandemic has besieged medical centers in the U.S. and Western Europe, with a total death toll north of 100,000 in those regions, all of Africa's confirmed cases number in the thousands — most of which remain concentrated in just a handful of North African nations.

But global health authorities fear this won't continue forever.

"Anywhere between 300,000 and 3.3 million African people could lose their lives as a direct result of COVID-19, depending on the intervention measures taken to stop the spread," the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa said in a report released Friday.

The problem, explained the U.N. agency, rests partly with the layout and infrastructure of some of the biggest cities on the continent, where the majority of the urban population lives in overcrowded neighborhoods without reliable access to hand-washing facilities. Couple that with relatively low supplies of hospital beds and the fact that 71% of the continent's workforce is "informally employed," according to the UNECA, without alternatives to work from home in the case of an outbreak, and it becomes clear that "the continent is vulnerable."

To calculate the impact of the virus, the commission referred to a computer model composed by researchers at Imperial College London, whose grim outlooks on the possible effects in other parts of the world have already proven widely influential. In a worst-case scenario, in which governments do not intervene with preventative measures such as large-scale social distancing, Africa may see more than 22 million people require hospitalization and some 3.3 million die of COVID-19.

But even the best-case scenario — in which early and decisive measures save the lives of roughly 3 million people, according to the model — presents risks of its own. That's because the commission estimates that such sweeping rules would necessarily halt large sectors of the economy and push as many as 29 million people into extreme poverty — in other words, earning less than $1.90 a day to live on.

Vera Songwe, the UNECA executive secretary, says $100 billion is needed to "urgently and immediately provide fiscal space to all countries to help address the immediate safety net needs of the populations." Already, Songwe said in a statement Thursday that countries in Africa have been suffering under the virus' fiscal effects, even if the physical ones have not yet made their full impact felt.

"The economic costs of the Pandemic have been harsher than the direct impact of the COVID-19," Songwe said. "Across the continent, all economies are suffering from the sudden shock to the economies. The physical distancing needed to manage the pandemic is suffocating and drowning economic activity."

Much of this economic devastation will be an "unavoidable" part of supporting the continent's medical response and preserving as many lives as possible — but at least some of it may be mitigated, the agency said, by "fighting the urge to impose export bans," temporarily halting debt collection and freeing up access to emergency funding and intellectual property on lifesaving supplies.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.