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COVID-19 and North Africa: impact and resilience
02 December 2020

The human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has been more limited in Africa than elsewhere. At the same time, the pandemic has exacerbated existing threats, fragilities and vulnerabilities – including in North Africa, the second-worst affected region of the continent – hindering international efforts to sustain peace, especially in conflict-affected settings such as Libya. The socio-economic impact of COVID-19 has also been significant, leading countries in the region to adopt a range of response measures with a view towards strengthening the resilience of societies and economies in the face of the pandemic.

African countries may be spared the worst of the pandemic, with a comparatively low number of both COVID-19 infection cases and deaths. However,COVID-19 has aggravated the pre-existing political and economic challenges in North Africa and generated new vulnerabilities. This includes, but is not limited to, increasing youth unemployment, disrupting the region’s connection to global value chains, and diminishing key sources of revenue such as exports, tourism and remittances. As forecasted, the gross domestic product (GDP) in North Africa is projected to contract to −0.8% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. All North African countries aside from Egypt are expected to fall into a deep recession in 2020, given their exposure to oil price fluctuations – seen with Libya (−25.4%) and Algeria (−4.4%) – or due to their reliance on tourism, such as Tunisia (−3.4%) and Morocco (−3.3%).

Most countries have rapidly implemented containment measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their struggling healthcare systems and economies. Nevertheless, combating the outbreak is particularly challenging in a conflict-torn country with an ill-equipped healthcare system, such as Libya, which creates a crisis within a crisis in the country.

After nine years of conflict, Libyans are struggling to adapt to the post-pandemic “new normal” to which many countries are adjusting. This is especially true for those who live in precarious conditions, including internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, as well as women and children − who usually pay the highest price at such trying times. Latest International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures from October 2020 show that there are 392 241 IDPs and 584 509 migrants in Libya.

In addition, the 2020 Humanitarian Needs Overview indicates that an estimated 336 000 people in Libya – including 117 000 migrants and refugees – were already experiencing severely food insecurity before COVID-19.

Bearing in mind the aforementioned challenges, responses to the pandemic present a wide array of opportunities to rebuild and recover stronger while simultaneously advancing the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Leveraging on and building resilience should be key in charting the way forward, during the pandemic and beyond. Community-level resilience is crucial for recovery, while also underscoring the importance of economic and institutional resilience.

Despite the challenges raised by the pandemic, including in terms of carrying out diplomatic activities – in some instances, by virtual means – efforts to resolve the conflict in Libya have witnessed important developments with the signing of a ceasefire agreement in Libya in October 2020, followed by the launch of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. 

Furthermore, since the outbreak of the pandemic, governments, private sector and civil societies in North Africa have developed innovative responses including economic adaptation, strengthening economic inclusion and resilience, catalysing digital transformation, strengthening the provision of services, and reinforcing partnerships with local communities as pillars of resilience.

Measures have been taken by some North African countries (for example, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia) to reinforce the financing programme in favour of micro and small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). These measures range from the establishment of a credit line for refinancing new loans, expended for the benefit of MSMEs by the Central Bank of Morocco, to the launching of the 300 million envelope in Tunisia, the first of which that will benefit SMEs. In addition, the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise Development Agency (MSMEDA) in Egypt launched an exceptional loan for a limited period to help small projects withstand the crisis. Egypt has also provided allowances of 500 EGP for three consecutive months for irregular workers who might be impacted by COVID-19.

In light of the complete lockdown in most countries of the region, many countries leveraged digital solutions to reshape their economies and improve services. Examples include the development and improvement of e-learning platforms and online education in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, in which operators have provided free access to online education platforms. Youth organisations and ministries of health and population in North Africa have also used digital tools to keep youth socially engaged during the pandemic, and to fight misinformation. Other countries, such as Tunisia, have used robot vehicles to patrol the streets and raise awareness about the lockdown measures. And through the use of technological applications, Libyan women peacebuilders are at the forefront of combating both the repercussions of COVID-19 and the violent conflict.

Empowering local communities as pillars of resilience has also been at the heart of some countries’ responses. Such initiatives have ranged from empowering vulnerable groups to supporting women and youth as drivers of economic recovery and resilience during COVID-19 and beyond. The Egyptian government has expanded the Takaful and Karama social safety net programme, formed an interministerial committee for the irregular workers affected by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and established a workers’ emergency benefits fund. Furthermore, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Council for Women are leading an international initiative in the United Nations to shed light on the situation of women and girls during COVID-19. Egypt has taken the lead in the region to advance a holistic response that includes women’s economic protection, unpaid care and combating violence against women. Moroccan authorities have also launched a platform to warn about violence against women.

While there have been relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths in North African countries, the region is still paying a heavy price, both in terms of humanitarian crises and economic costs. A preventive and resilience-based approach must be at the heart of these countries’ responses to rebuild and recover stronger. This must include consolidating inclusive governance, bolstering healthcare systems, leveraging digital solutions, advancing stronger partnerships, promoting trade, and advancing sustainable development. 

Ahmed Abdel-Latif is the director-general of the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping & Peacebuilding (CCCPA), and Executive- Director of the Aswan Forum​

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