Sub-Saharan Africa's Debt Problem: Mapping the Pandemics Effect and the Way Forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has, thus far, spared Africa from the high number of cases and deaths seen in other regions in the world. As of April 2021, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for just 3 percent of the world’s cases and 4 percent of its deaths. Some experts attribute the relatively low case counts in sub-Saharan Africa to the region’s extremely young population or, importantly, the swift and pre-emptive lockdowns that many countries implemented in March 2020. While these lockdowns have likely saved lives, they have also left significant scars on the fiscal position of sub-Saharan Africa and the market conditions it faces. Dwindling revenues following the fall in global trade met a wave of unemployment among a population that lacks widespread access to safety nets and health infrastructure. This paper utilizes new data to study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on debt sustainability and vulnerability in sub-Saharan Africa and sheds light on the channels through which these impacts have taken place. We find that debt levels have risen substantially in sub-Saharan Africa since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We utilize IMF projections as a comparison to analyze the impacts on the pandemic on debt levels and how they covary with key determinants of growth and fiscal space. This paper is organized as follows. Section 2 begins by taking brief stock of the region’s debt landscape prior to the advent of COVID-19, before illustrating how the debt burden has changed during the pandemic. It also reviews key reasons why indebtedness has risen, including stimulus packages, current account deficits, and borrowing costs. Section 3 examines key economic channels along which the pandemic shock unfolded. Section 4 considers the magnitude of revenue loss and the vulnerability of the informal workers during the pandemic. Section 5 discusses attempts to rectify the unexpected, unsustainable increases in debt (or “pandemic debt”) and explores important considerations of which effective policies must take account. Section 6 recommends a number of policies and the way forward.