An informal market in the Anyama district of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, is sanitized against the coronavirus. Photo by SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images.

An informal market in the Anyama district of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, is sanitized against the coronavirus. Photo by SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images.

The COVID-19 pandemic has struck the Sahel and West Africa at a time when the region is already under severe pressure from violent insecurity and the effects of climate change on its land, food and water resources.

By the end of April, there had been 9,513 confirmed coronavirus cases across the 17 countries of the region, and some 231 deaths, with the highest overall numbers recorded in Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso. Low testing rates mean than these numbers give only a partial picture.

The Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA) forecast in early April that almost 17 million people in the Sahel and West Africa (7.1 million in Nigeria alone) will need food and nutritional assistance during the coming lean season in June–August, more than double the number in an average year. The combined impact of violent insecurity and COVID-19 could put more than 50 million other people across the region at risk of food and nutrition crisis.

Rippling across the region

The effects of the collapse in global commodity prices, currency depreciations, rising costs of consumer goods and disruptions to supply chains are rippling across the region. And for major oil-exporting countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Chad and Cameroon, the wipe-out of foreign currency earnings will hammer government revenues just as the cost of food and other critical imports goes up. It is likely that the number of people who suffer the direct health impact of the coronavirus will be far outstripped by the number for whom there will be harsh social and economic costs.

In recent years, valuable protocols and capacities have been put in place by governments in West and Central Africa in response to Ebola and other infectious disease outbreaks.

But inadequate healthcare funding and infrastructure across this region compound the challenge of responding to the spread of the COVID-19 infection – which is testing the resources of even the world’s best-funded public health systems.

Over many years, however, the region has steadily built up structures to tackle humanitarian and development challenges, particularly as regards food security. It has an established system for assessing the risk of food crisis annually and coordinating emergency support to vulnerable communities. Each country monitors climate and weather patterns, transhumance, market systems and agricultural statistics, and terrorist disruption of agricultural productivity, from local community to national and regional level.

The system is coordinated and quality-controlled, using common technical data standards, by the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), a regional intergovernmental body established in 1973 in response to a devastating drought. Collective risk assessments allow emergency support to be mobilized through the RPCA.

For almost three months already, countries in Sahelian West Africa have been working with the World Health Organization to prepare national COVID-19 response strategies and strengthen health controls at their borders. Almost all governments have also opted for domestic curfews, and variations of lockdown and market restrictions.

Senegal has been a leader in rapidly developing Africa’s diagnostic capacity, and plans are under way to speed up production of test kits. Niger was swift to develop a national response strategy, to which donors have pledged €194.5 million. While the IMF has agreed emergency financial assistance to help countries address the urgent balance-of-payments, health and social programme needs linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, signing off $3.4 billion for Nigeria, $442 million for Senegal and $130 million for Mauritania.

Steps are also now being taken towards the formulation of a more joined-up regional approach. Notably, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has been chosen by an extraordinary session of the Economic Community of West African States to coordinate the regional response to COVID-19. As Africa’s biggest economy and home to its largest population, Nigeria is a critical hub for transnational flows of goods and people. Its controversial August 2019 land border closure, in a bid to address smuggling, has already painfully disrupted regional agri-food trade and value chains. The active engagement of the Buhari administration will thus be crucial to the success of a multifaceted regional response.

One of the first tough questions the region’s governments must collectively address is how long to maintain the border shutdowns that were imposed as an initial measure to curb the spread of the virus. Closed borders are detrimental to food security, and disruptive to supply chains and the livelihoods of micro, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs that rely on cross-border trade. The impact of prolonged closures will be all the more profound in a region where welfare systems are largely non-existent or, at best, highly precarious.

Nigeria, in particular, with more than 95 million people already living in extreme poverty, might do well to explore measures to avoid putting food further beyond the reach of people who are seeing their purchasing power evaporate.

In taking further actions to control the spread of the coronavirus, the region’s governments will need to show faith in the system that they have painstakingly developed to monitor and respond to the annual risk of food crisis across the Sahel. This system, and the critical data it offers, will be vital to informing interventions to strengthen the four components of food security – availability, access, stability and utilization – in the context of COVID-19, and for charting a post-pandemic path of recovery.

Above all, careful steps will need to be put in place to ensure that preventing the spread of the coronavirus does not come at the cost of even greater food insecurity for the people of the Sahel and West Africa. The region’s governments must prioritize the flow of food across borders and renew their commitment to strategic coordination and alignment.