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Undoing SDGs Progress? The Impact of COVID-19 on Africa

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sombo M. Chunda
February 14, 2021

Image used with permission from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/  

The content of this publication has not been approved by the United Nations and does not reflect the views of the United Nations or its officials or Member States.


When COVID-19 spread to Africa with the first case confirmed in Egypt on February 4, 2020, the concern was how Africa’s fragile healthcare system would cope. More than 2.6 million people have been infected and over 60,000 deaths have been recorded on the continent. With the end not yet in sight, experts are projecting a second wave for some countries on the continent. The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex problem.

News of vaccine approvals in the West provides relief but the end may be far for poor countries, which are mostly in Africa. This is because poor countries may only have access to the vaccines in 2024. More importantly, the economic fallout from COVID-19 will have ripple effect on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—the SDGs are a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. The mandatory shutdowns implemented in the earlier days of the pandemic meant a significant reduction in foreign exchange earnings. With many countries depending on natural resources to earn income from tourism and mineral exports, the closure of international borders and restrictions on movement of people and the closure of manufacturing plants and industries that depend on Africa’s mineral exports meant no income. A recession, the first one in 25 years for the continent, was projected by the World Bank.

SDG’s Progress Under Threat

Prior to COVID-19, Africa was off track on the 2030 SDG targets. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse and threatens attainment of all 17 goals. The impacts on the first five goals are more pronounced and echoing loud across the continent: (1) no poverty, (2) zero hunger, (3) good health and well-being (4) quality education, and (5) gender equality. The World Bank estimates show that COVID-19 could push over 40 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa into extreme poverty. Further, the World Food Program estimates based on projected working poor suffering job loss and loss of remittance income, showed that over 100 million people would be food insecure by the end of 2020 in the 47 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. People were pushed into a position to make a choice between dying from hunger as a result of not working or COVID-19, an unfortunate observation made by Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s health and well-being. A study in South Africa found that people who previously coped well under pressure were struggling due to unprecedented stress triggers caused by the pandemic. A psychiatrist in Zimbabwe noted, “There is a sense of despondency and hopelessness. There is no trust in the system; this crisis is challenging people’s faith and beliefs, it has shaken their concepts of relationships and humanity.’’

The disruption to education early in the pandemic due to lock down measures is likely to negatively impact students’ outcomes as a result of the time lost away from school. According to the Human Rights Watch, school closures caused by the pandemic exacerbated previously existing inequalities, and children who were already most at risk of being excluded from a quality education have been most affected. While other parts of the world were able to migrate to online teaching and learning platforms with ease, most countries on the continent did not have that luxury, resulting in total school closures. The school closures also spelt the end of education for some children, mostly girls of reproductive age. A report in Kenya revealed that close to 4,000 school girls in one county had fallen pregnant during the pandemic—the majority will never return to school after giving birth.

The pandemic widened the gap in gender equality. Women are disproportionately represented in industries that are more affected by COVID-19 than men. Further, cases of gender-based violence (GBV) increased during the pandemic around the continent. In West Africa, Cameroon and Mali reported increased GBV cases, as did Kenya and South Africa.


While COVID-19 affects all the 17 sustainable development goals, the immediate impact on the first five is pronounced in all parts of the continent. The consequences of the global pandemic will be felt many years into the future with a generation impacted by an inability to access quality education as a result of school closures and a lack of the option to receive online instruction. The compounding effects from poverty, hunger, poor health and well-being and gender inequality will require more effort to help us get back on the path towards attaining the SDG’s. There is a lot of work ahead for each of the countries on the continent to assess the true impact of the pandemic, develop strategies and implement solutions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated our collective vulnerability and also highlighted the need for joint action if we are to realize a different future that leaves no one behind; because leaving others behind inadvertently pulls everyone backwards.  

Author: Sombo M. Chunda is a Ph.D. student in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Prior to graduate school, Sombo worked as country manager in Zambia for the Swedish international development organization, Diakonia. She is recipient of the 2020-2021 Governor L. Douglas Wilder Legacy Scholarship Award and 2019 recipient of the Walter W. Mode Scholarship from ASPA. [email protected]; twitter @ChundaSombo

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One Response to Undoing SDGs Progress? The Impact of COVID-19 on Africa

  1. Engwase B. Mwale Reply

    February 16, 2021 at 2:52 pm

    The article is well thought out with regard to the socio-ecomomic impact of Covid-19. By and large women and girls stepped into the pandemic from a vulnerable point and indeed Covid-19 has exacerbated the inequality gap. I agree, Africa needs to urgently undertake a deeper analysis of the Covid-19 implications on its development agenda and relate this to the SDG attainment. Well done, the paper generates further debate.

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