The COVID-19 pandemic cannot be classified as a surprise. Several studies, intelligence reports and epidemiologic knowledge all predicted some infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome would likely spread around the world.

The recent warnings of coronavirus type of infections had been limited in geographical range to circumscribed regions, but strong enough to justify world preparedness. As we know better now, these alerts did not produce serious vigilance or readiness.

“Herd mentality did the rest”

Unsurprisingly the economic actors acted in panic as the full extent of the current outbreak unfolded. Herd mentality did the rest. We are now in the middle of a discussion on whether the world will face a recession or a depression. The former defined as a slowdown of economic activity whereas the latter is associated with a long-term downturn of the same.

We shall know soon. But in the meantime, we can predict that African countries will most likely find themselves in the depression category unless some major effort is made to rescue their precarious economies.

In all honesty we cannot blame the Africans this time.

Potential damage of COVID-19

Before COVID-19, the IMF economic growth forecast for the continent this year was 3.2%, with 16 African countries amongst the 30 best performing in the world, and more than half of the population in the continent living in countries with 5% economic growth or more.

The naysayers will point to the myriad of problems the African continent has not been able to address, and they are right. Inequality, unemployment, lack of proper safety nets and slow structural transformation progress are sizable challenges, not fake news.

But we are forced to admit the positive changes taking place in many fronts are notable; allowing Africa to post in the last two decades some of its best socio-economic indicators since independence.

In just a few weeks all the above seemed like history. The competition is now to size the amount of damage COVID-19 will cause. McKinsey predicts a loss in the continent between $90 and $200bn this year; the World Bank estimates an economic contraction between 2.6% and 7% while the African Union predicts a more modest drop of 1.1% from earlier growth projections, if the crisis lasts a few months.

Scarier global forecasts such as the ILO are projecting 200 million jobs at risk; UNCTAD estimating a 40% foreign direct investment contraction, the WTO is worried about a fall between 13% and 32% of world trade. With the IMF talk of serious recession already upon us, let our imagination worry about the size these impacts will have across Africa.