HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Outside a foreign currency exchange in Zimbabwe’s capital, hordes of people desperate for U.S. dollars are pushed up against each other.
“That’s it, keep it tight,” some shout, trying to prevent others from jumping the line to buy the money that could get them a discount on goods pegged to a quickly devaluing local currency.
Nearly two years into a global pandemic, a new spike in coronavirus cases driven by the omicron variant is once again shuttering businesses, halting travel, reviving fears of overwhelmed hospitals and upending travel and holiday plans in countries around the world.
But in Zimbabwe and other African nations, the virus's resurgence is threatening the very survival of millions of people who have already been driven to the edge by a pandemic that has devastated their economies. When putting food on the table is not a given, worries about whether to gather with family members for the holiday or heed public announcements urging COVID-19 precautions take a back seat.
“Yes, I have heard of the new variant, but it can never be worse than having nothing to eat at home right now,” says furniture store clerk Joshua Nyoni, one of the dozens waiting outside the exchange. Like many others in the chaotic crowd, Nyoni alternately wears his face mask below his chin or puts it in his pocket.
The United Nations Economic Commission on Africa, or ECA, noted in March that about 9 in 10 of the world’s extremely poor people live in Africa. The ECA now warns that the economic effects already felt since the pandemic began in 2020 “will push an additional 5 to 29 million below the extreme poverty line.”
“If the impact of the pandemic is not limited by 2021, an additional 59 million people could suffer the same fate, which would bring the total number of extremely poor Africans to 514 million people,” the agency says.
The World Bank estimates the economy went from 2.4% growth in 2019 to a 3.3% contraction in 2020, plunging Africa into its first recession in 25 years.
"The economic disruption wrought by COVID-19 has pushed hunger crises off a cliff,” Sean Granville-Ross, Africa regional director for the nonprofit charitable organization Mercy Corps, told The Associated Press.
Granville-Ross says his organization in 2021 saw “an alarming spike in need” in regions such as the Sahel, West Africa, East Africa and southern Africa where some countries were already experiencing humanitarian crises and conflict before COVID-19.
Worry is now intensifying amid a spike in COVID infections in Africa, which currently accounts for about 9 million of the world’s roughly 275 million cases.
The World Health Organization has for months described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports. But in mid-December it said the number of new cases was "currently doubling every five days, the fastest rate this year” as the delta and omicron variants push up infections. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe have been reporting reduced numbers over the past week, but authorities remain cautious.
Renewed travel restrictions and possible lockdowns “will only push millions more people to poverty and undermine the slight economic recovery we have started to see,” Granville-Ross says.
Compared to the continent as a whole, where just over 7% of the population has received two shots of the coronavirus vaccine, Zimbabwe is regarded as a success story — even though only about 20% of its 15 million people have been fully vaccinated.
Amid lingering hesitancy, the government has threatened to widen vaccine mandates. But for many people, virus infection fears have taken a back seat to the more urgent task of finding enough money to feed their families.
Dozens of residents desperate for access to money in an economy where cash, especially the U.S. dollar, is king, sleep outside both foreign currency exchanges and banks, huddled closely together for days. Elderly people, many without face masks or not properly wearing them, stand in tightly packed lines that snake for kilometers, waiting to withdraw their pensions.
“I would rather spend my time here than queue for the vaccine,” says Nyoni, outside the crowded foreign currency exchange.
“If I catch the virus, they may quarantine me, treat me or even feed me if I am hospitalized," he says. "But hunger is different: You can’t be put in quarantine because the family has nothing to eat. People just watch you die.”