• COVID-19 threatens to be catastrophic for children living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • A new report from UNICEF outlines the pandemic's potential impacts on this already vulnerable group.
  • Here are five of its most pressing insights.

While the world has focused on the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the socioeconomic impact has received less attention. In much of Africa – as outlined in a new report – the pandemic's social impact, particularly for children, has been devastating.

The report, entitled COVID-19: A Catastrophe for Children in Sub-Saharan Africa, reviews information from nearly 40 databases with emerging country-level reporting from more than 41 African nations.

Here are five key insights into the situation for the children of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA):

1. African nations have surprised their doubters and done relatively well in the battle against the pandemic

In the earliest days of the pandemic, pundits quickly concluded that the impact on Africa would be horrific. It was assumed that underlying health issues, poor sanitary conditions and overcrowded living arrangements would combine to exert a huge toll on the continent.

Yet even allowing for inconsistencies in testing rates, the WHO's data puts the infection rate across the continent at around 5% of the rate in the Americas or Europe.

The reasons will not be known for a while, but there is no doubt that many African nations responded rapidly, with school closures, lockdowns and widespread mask-wearing regulations. It seems that countries' recent experience with other infectious diseases, including Ebola, meant they were more prepared and their citizens more understanding of the need to modify behaviours.

Other factors were certainly at play; these may include the young average age across the continent, higher levels of disease resistance, and the impact of other vaccines.

Even before COVID-19, SSA was a challenging place for many of its 550 million children
Even before COVID-19, SSA was a challenging place for many of its 550 million children
Image: UNICEF

2. The economic impact of COVID-19 on Africa has been catastrophic

The region is now going through its first-ever economic recession, with not even a single country being spared, causing poverty records to be shattered and reversing 15 years of income growth.

An estimated 23 million people have been pushed into poverty in SSA since the start of the year, which – according to the report – is the largest single-year change ever recorded in either absolute or percentage terms, and by a wide margin.

The total number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries could grow to more than 500 million, which is close to double the number in 1990 and puts countries way off-track to reach the poverty reduction target under Sustainable Development Goal 1.

3. The impact on children has been uniquely acute

While all members of a family are impacted by lower household incomes and higher food prices, school closures have meant children faced an extra set of challenges.

Poverty rates among those aged 17 and under are estimated to have jumped by 10% since the start of 2020, and could rise to 20% in a number of countries. Added to this are climate shocks (droughts, floods and locust invasions) and conflict (insecurity, instability and displacement), which existed before the pandemic but have also intensified since the start of the year.

School closures, while common to much of the world, had very different impacts in developing nations. As the children of wealthier nations moved to e-learning, it was not a viable option for most families in Africa, who often lack the computers or affordable connectivity that other children take for granted. High rates of adult illiteracy further meant that many children could not get parental support unlike in other regions.

An estimated one-quarter of a billion children received little or no education during this time. An unknown number of these children will never return to school when they reopen, as occurred in West Africa following the Ebola crisis.

Furthermore, up to 50 million children lost one meal a day that had been provided within the school system. The early on-the-ground evidence is that there has been a rapid rise in early marriage, transactional sex and teen pregnancy rates, along with increased sexual, physical and emotional abuse that has come with the widespread disruption of social services.

4. Very little financial support has been made for at-risk families, while significant amounts of international support awaits distribution

Cash-transfer programmes, initiatives designed to have the same impact as welfare or unemployment benefits that are taken for granted in developed nations, are at very low levels of adoption across the continent. They reach, on average, less than 10% of families across Sub-Saharan Africa in an environment where more than 40% of families are considered vulnerable.

Yet the size of the payment needed to head off the most severe impacts is a fraction of the size of similar payments in developed nations; the average payment is just $30 a month compared to 40 times that in G20 countries.

Delivering cash transfers to households can mitigate or prevent most of the challenges that children are currently facing. Better still, economic modelling suggests a rapid multiplier from such transfers, as families immediately spend the small payments on their daily needs.

Support for these programmes, which are funded by cash-strapped national governments, has been augmented by international financial institutions. However, as of the end of September 2020, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had only accessed around 12% of their $1.2 trillion in approved funding capacity, and only around $14 billion of the $22 billion of approved new emergency funding and project redeployment for SSA countries had been disbursed.

5. Africa’s high usage of mobile money services can both help families and provide an opportunity to leapfrog other nations on the road to recovery

Getting vital cash support to the most needy families, many who live in informal settlements and are unbanked, is made easier thanks to the higher-than-average rates of mobile money adoption across Africa.

Africa is home to more mobile money users than any other region, with 181 million active users as of 2019. Of the world's 1.04 billion registered mobile money accounts, 520 million are registered to users in either Sub-Saharan Africa, or Middle East & Northern Africa.

Existing cash transfer programmes used to help the most vulnerable during the pandemic have reached the recipient through payments direct to their mobile phones. Such programmes are seen as having the benefit of safe and rapid delivery and a decreased chance of the funds being channeled away from the most needy – or, what's worse, embroiled in corruption.