The impact of COVID-19 on the Horn of Africa

Photo: Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images
Photo: Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was first reported in the Horn of Africa region in early March 2020. At first, the number of cases seemed low compared to other regions, both on the continent and around the globe; however, these figures did increase steadily. Six months into the pandemic, it is encouraging to note the downward trend in the number of cases and deaths over the past few weeks. Thus far, more than 150,000 cases have been reported in the Horn of Africa; however, testing capacity is still quite limited, making the numbers a poor indicator of the actual infection rate. As pointed out by Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), both the drastic preventative measures applied across Africa by governments in the first months of the pandemic and the continent’s young population certainly played a significant role in limiting the devastating impact of the virus, as seen elsewhere. Regional and international efforts have also helped in hampering the immediate impact of the pandemic, but a sustained and coordinated effort is needed to reduce the longer-term effects of COVID-19, particularly the effects on public health and the economy.

Current situation

The pandemic is unquestionably a global concern, as we are all facing the same storm. However, some have stronger houses than others and possess strategic assets that will enable them to build back better and more quickly after the storm passes. In fact, when COVID-19 hit the region, conditions for a perfect storm were overwhelming most countries. Indeed, the countries in the Horn of Africa were already facing a multitude of crises and challenges, including a desert locust invasion, food insecurity, floods and drought, all of which were exacerbated by extreme weather patterns, mostly due to climate change. COVID-19 further exposed the structural deficiencies of countries with fragile economies and which are painfully fighting to address extreme poverty, social unrest, insecurity and governance challenges, to name but a few.

One of the lessons this pandemic laid bare is that global threats know no borders. Therefore, a neglected threat anywhere poses a threat everywhere.

While it may still be too early to fully assess the magnitude of the adverse impact of COVID-19 on the countries of the region, it is fair to say that the pandemic has amplified these challenges and will make recovery efforts harder. Already, the pandemic’s multi-faceted impact is being felt: national economies have suffered due to export losses, and unemployment has grown, particularly amongst the youth and in the informal sector, which accounts for the majority of economic activity in most countries in the region. The critical infrastructure needed to respond adequately to the pandemic is lacking in most countries in the region and COVID-19 has also exposed serious governance shortcomings, including corruption issues in some cases, which has, in turn, has contributed to further eroding public trust.

Electoral processes have also been affected: the state of emergency declared in Ethiopia, on 8 April, due to the pandemic, resulted in the postponement of elections initially scheduled for August. COVID-19 has also been cited as a reason to restrict political activities, which opposition parties in a number of states have considered bias.

In the peace and security field, the positive response to the appeal by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for a global cease-fire to be observed by several parties to conflicts was encouraging. At the same time, the implementation of containment measures has restricted troop movements, particularly in the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia. In the same vein, the operations of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) were equally affected, while ethnic tensions escalated drastically. And while virtual meetings have continued, most face-to-face regional diplomatic efforts have been put on hold.

The pandemic has also highlighted the need to look at the plight of migrants, with calls for countries to adhere to international law and human rights standards, and for enhanced cooperation regarding repatriation, in view of the serious public health concerns involved. One such group that is significantly affected is Ethiopian migrants, and it is estimated that there are 145,000 in Yemen alone.

Regional and international efforts have helped in hampering the immediate impact of the pandemic, but a sustained and coordinated effort is needed to reduce the longer-term effects of COVID-19, particularly the effects on public health and the economy.

Before COVID-19, 16,95 million people from four (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan) of the eight IGAD member countries required food assistance. Projections indicate that an estimated 50,6 million people in the Eastern Africa region will be food insecure by the end of 2020, due to the compounding impacts of COVID-19, the desert locust invasion and ongoing climatic shocks.


As in other parts of the world, the countries in the Horn have had to strike a delicate balance between mitigating health risks and the associated adverse economic implications. Measures were taken – with varying degrees of success – in each of the countries to reduce the impact of the pandemic, including lockdowns, border closures and enforced quarantines.

While many countries in the region announced remedial fiscal and monetary measures, as well as food distribution and financial support to their most vulnerable groups, more is needed in terms of immediate and direct assistance to cushion against lost income and export earnings, dwindling remittances and decreased government revenue. Various appeals for financial aid have been made, including by the UN Secretary-General. I have also been engaging with regional actors on COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including other UN entities, international and national actors in the countries of the Horn, international financial institutions (including the World Bank and IMF) and the European Union.

The regional body for the Horn of Africa – IGAD – was also quick to react to the crisis, by convening an Extraordinary Summit of Heads and State and Government on 30 March, at which leaders resolved to formulate a comprehensive regional response strategy to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the contributions of 18 UN experts, we were pleased to provide substantive input to IGAD on issues related to health, the socio-economic impact, and peace and security. To date, IGAD has rolled out the strategy’s components on health response, food security and peace and security. IGAD member states have been fully supportive of this exercise, which could be an important tool to enhance regional cooperation, if they prove effective. My office continues to engage with IGAD on how best to support the finalisation and implementation of its regional response.

Regional cooperation is indeed vital and should be supported through effective international partnerships. One of the lessons this pandemic laid bare is that global threats know no borders. Therefore, a neglected threat anywhere poses a threat everywhere. A sustained and concerted response is therefore vital to adequately address the multifaceted challenges that the pandemic has brought forth. Not since World War II has multilateralism been so tested. As challenging as current times may be, they offer our world and the Horn of Africa a unique opportunity to rebuild better and stronger. Let’s not put it to waste.

Mr. Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa

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