How does the coronavirus pandemic affect the African middle class?

COVID-19 thwarts the dreams of thousands of people who belong to the new urban middle class in Africa
Railway line as a commuter train approaches, amidst the spread of COVID-19, in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, on July 6, 2020

REUTERS/THOMAS MUKOYA  -   Railway line as a commuter train approaches, amidst the spread of COVID-19, in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, on July 6, 2020

The demographic revolution that hit Africa during the second decade of the 21st century favoured the emergence of the so-called new urban middle class. During those years, some of the main international institutions, such as the World Bank, stressed that the middle class had tripled globally between 1990 and 2015 alone. In particular, this sector of the population began to grow at a dizzying rate and created the perfect scenario for the emergence of certain social movements that demanded more democratic regimes or an end to the corruption that characterizes many of these nations. In 2020, however, this situation changed completely. The winds of change and hope that had conquered much of the continent in recent years have been stalled by the emergence of the coronavirus, a pathogen that has changed the world as we have known it until now.  The pandemic that has killed more than 12,000 people in Africa and infected around 522,2000 has taken away the hopes of the thousands and thousands of people who belong to the African middle class. 

Personas con máscaras faciales para protegerse contra el coronavirus, caminan por la calle en el centro de Johannesburgo, Sudáfrica, el lunes 11 de mayo de 2020
AP/THEMBA HADEBE - People wearing face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus walk down the street in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday, May 11, 2020

The measures decreed to stop the spread of this pathogen have forced dozens of people out of work: from taxi drivers to technology entrepreneurs to people living in the tourism sector.  However, in recent years these people have been the main economic engine of the African continent. As their purchasing power has increased, so has their capacity to create new businesses and, at the same time, to hire new people. The African economy has grown at a dizzying rate over the last few years and although poverty is still a very present scourge on this continent, Africa has done and is doing everything possible to leave this great problem behind. 

According to World Data Lab, an organization dedicated to research and data analysis, a decade ago, in countries like Ethiopia or Ghana, more than half of the population lived in maximum poverty. Even so, and despite the fact that the economy has improved, the World Bank's forecasts are not at all optimistic, since this organisation predicts that 87 percent of the world's poorest population will live in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2030, if economic growth follows the same trajectory as in recent years. 

Una cajera del supermercado Spar en el suburbio Norwood de Johannesburgo, cuenta su dinero al final de su turno
AP/JEROME DELAY - A cashier at the Spar supermarket in the Norwood suburb of Johannesburg counts her money at the end of her shift

In this sense, different international organizations have warned that "this collapse of the middle class could take several years to recover," according to statements collected by the U.S. newspaper The New York Times. The number of Africans belonging to the middle class has tripled in the last 30 years to reach 313 million people, that is, more than 34% of the continent's population, according to a report prepared by the African Development Bank (AfDB).  

The abandonment of agricultural culture or the increase in purchasing power has created the perfect scenario for the emergence of a stronger and more empowered middle class. This document reveals that, over the decades, the numbers have steadily increased from approximately 111 million or 26% of the population in 1980 to about 151.4 million (27%) in 1990. This figure changed again with the beginning of the current century as the 2010 figure shows a significant increase of 60% over the 2000 figure which referred to 27.2% of the total population. Among the countries with a higher percentage of middle class are Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt; as well as Gabon, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Cape Verde, Kenya or South Africa, among others. 

Hombres que usan una máscara facial para protegerse contra el coronavirus, pasan frente a un cartel publicitario en Soweto, Sudáfrica, el lunes 29 de junio de 2020
AP/THEMBA HADEBE - Men wearing a face mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus walk past a billboard in Soweto, South Africa, on Monday, June 29, 2020

The development of technology or the commitment to tourism favoured the emergence and subsequent development of this middle class which, at present, is facing an unprecedented health crisis. African governments have been characterised by their capacity to manage this pandemic and thus avoid collapses in their health systems. In addition, the measure of age in much of the African population, compared to the phenomenon of aging that characterizes Europe, or the lesser international air traffic, has caused this pathogen to spread at a slower rate. However, as the continent has a long history of managing pandemics, the relevant authorities knew how to deal with this disease. Even so, this pandemic, as recent events have shown, has mainly affected the African middle class, which is often dependent on jobs related to technology or tourism, and which has had to stop its activity because of this disease. 

Compradores pasan por delante de una tienda Edgars en un centro comercial de Lenasia, al sur de Johannesburg
PHOTO/REUTERS - Shoppers walk past an Edgars store in a shopping centre in Lenasia, south of Johannesburg

In the case of Nigeria, the crisis caused by the collapse of oil prices has also been added. The West African nation is currently facing high unemployment rates and a recession that could last more than a year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The shadow of the black gold crisis and the COVID-19 have brought the African continent and much of the international community to the brink. Both Angola and Nigeria depend on oil to survive. Both countries earn 90 percent of export earnings and more than two-thirds of oil revenues from oil sales, according to the IMF. 

Universidad de Lagos, en Lagos, el 20 de marzo de 2020. El gobierno nigeriano ha cerrado todas las escuelas federales del país, incluyendo universidades, colegios y escuelas secundarias como medida de precaución contra la propagación del coronavirus
AFP/ PIUS UTOMI EKPEI - University of Lagos, in Lagos, on 20 March 2020 The Nigerian government has closed all federal schools in the country, including universities, colleges and high schools as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus

These are bad times for entrepreneurship as well. The African continent now needs more than ever people who are willing to research the industry and who want to draw up a differentiation plan to get Africa out of the economic, social and health crisis in which it has been plunged since the appearance of this pathogen.  

The first recession in the last 25 years 
Centro comercial de Ciudad del Cabo (Sudáfrica)
PHOTO/REUTERS - Cape Town Shopping Centre (South Africa)

The volatility caused by the coronavirus pandemic - a disease that is claiming the lives of thousands and thousands of people - has directly affected the African middle class.  This pathogen will cost the sub-Saharan African region between 37,000 and 79. billion in production losses in 2020 alone, reducing agricultural productivity, weakening supply chains, increasing trade tensions, limiting employment prospects and exacerbating policy and regulatory uncertainty, according to the latest data from the World Bank, which predicts that economic growth in this region is expected to contract from 2.4% in 2019 to between -2.1 and -5.1% in 2020, leading to the region's first recession in 25 years.

The collapse of economic activity caused by the measures taken to prevent contagion and the macroeconomic instability that characterizes this continent have put the jobs of thousands and thousands of people at risk.  Thus, the World Bank predicts that growth will weaken dramatically in the two most developed areas - the West African Economic and Monetary Union and the East African Community - due to "weak external demand, disruptions in supply chains and domestic production," they have said. 

Fotografía de archivo de un centro comercial en construcción y puestos de mercado en el mercado Mercato de Addis Abeba el 18 de noviembre de 2015
PHOTO/REUTERS – Archival photograph of a shopping mall under construction and market stalls at Addis Ababa's Mercato market on 18 November 2015

In addition, in recent years the African continent has become the second fastest growing region in terms of visitor numbers, an increase that some countries have taken advantage of, seeing tourism as a way of transforming their economic model and improving their GDP.  However, this reality has become a dead letter after the appearance of the coronavirus. According to this economic institution, "the tourism sector will contract due to the serious disturbances that this area is currently suffering". "It is likely that countries that depend on the export of extractive products will also be the most affected by COVID-19, as growth will decrease by up to seven percentage points in oil-exporting countries and more than eight percentage points in metal-exporting countries," they have warned. 

Nigeria. Angola and South Africa - the three most powerful economies in the region - have suffered greatly from the consequences of this pandemic. Meanwhile, some 640 million people continue to live without electricity on this continent, 210 million of whom are in fragile or war-torn countries.  "Public debt levels and debt risk are increasing, which could jeopardize debt sustainability in some countries," the World Bank said. 

Un vendedor ambulante sudafricano espera a los clientes en el municipio de Alexandra, en el telón de fondo de las Torres Sandton, uno de los principales y más prestigiosos centros comerciales de África, el 26 de agosto de 2014 en Johannesburgo (Sudáfrica)
AFP/ PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN - A South African street vendor waits for customers in Alexandra township, against the backdrop of Sandton Towers, one of Africa's largest and most prestigious shopping centres, on 26 August 2014 in Johannesburg, South Africa

This transformation is taking place at the same time as Africa faces one of the greatest challenges of the last century: excessive population growth. Population growth has meant that many young people have been unable to enter the labour force.  Estimates made by the WB warn that "this fragility is costing the subcontinent half a percentage point of growth per year". "Gender differences persist and prevent the continent from reaching its full potential for growth and innovation," says this organization, which has warned that this crisis has led more than 416 million Africans to live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread in Africa, taking away the dreams of thousands of families who, over the past few years, have struggled to improve their quality of life.