COVID-19: Developments in North Africa
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

The North African region in relative terms has managed to contain the transmission of the pandemic and the number of confirmed cases until 31 March 2020 has remained under 1000 in all the five states. Egypt was the first African state and second in the Arab world after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to record a positive case. Subsequently, the number of confirmed cases started appearing in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Libya due to the ongoing civil war has attracted limited international travellers. One Libyan national was eventually identified and the number of confirmed cases has soared to 8 until 31 March. For Libya, further transmission of the virus could have a devastating impact due to poor health infrastructure.

Algeria, Morocco and Egypt have been proactive in allocating financial measures to alleviate the economic distress. In Tunisia, the political situation is highly volatile due to the poor state of the economy and anti-government protests. It has relied on foreign aid to meet the twin challenges i.e. upgrading its health infrastructure and rescuing the economy. The governments are also facing difficulties in curtailing misinformation as well as in imposing restrictions. On the subject of prisoners’ plight, Morocco has readjusted its prison policy rather than opting for release of inmates.

India has a huge opportunity to tap into the food sector due to high demand in North Africa and West Asia.


The first case in Algeria was recorded on 25 February 2020 and the first death occurred on 12 March. It closed all land and air entry and exits on 17 March 2020 and domestic flights were suspended on 22 March. The number of cases grew in subsequent days and restrictive measures were imposed in all major towns and cities such as Algiers, Batna, Tizi Ouzou, Setif, Tipaza, Constantine, Medea Oran, El Oued and Boumerdes. The authorities assured that the health officials are on high alert to identify patients suffering from the virus.

The Algerian government took measures such as installing hotline devoted to COVID-19 for answering doubts and providing correct information. The citizens were advised to stay indoors and leave house only in case of emergency to visit a single family member. The decision of the government to ban all kind of gatherings has quelled the anti-government protests taking place since February 2019.

The government has allocated US$ 100 million to import pharmaceutical products and equipment. A 12 member Chinese delegation comprising of doctors and technicians visited Algeria to share their expertise on dealing with the disease. China has also offered medical equipment worth US$ 455,000 and signed an agreement to build a hospital devoted to COVID-19 cases in Algeria.


In Egypt, the first case was recorded on 14 February 2020 and the first death occurred on 8 March. Egypt banned air travel from China on 26 January and suspended all international flights on 16 March. The authorities quarantined a cruise ship in Luxor on 7 March after 45 passengers and a crew including 19 foreigners were tested positive.

Critics have denounced the Egyptian authorities’ slow response in spreading awareness and failure to curb rampant misinformation. Amnesty International has demanded that the government should release all political prisoners fearing the outbreak of the virus in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons. The government on 19 March released 15 opposition activists to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 in prisons.

In terms of economic initiatives, Egypt has announced US$ 5.4 billion stimulus package, half of which is earmarked for tourism sector to support the running costs of hotels and guest houses. Moreover, steps such as support for stock exchange, two-year freeze on tax on agricultural land, 14 percent annual rise in pensioners etc have been initiated to cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Earlier on 4 March, symposium titled, “China and the World Corona Challenge” was organised in Cairo. The symposium praised China’s efforts to contain the pandemic and noted China’s prominence as the engine of global development and growth. China is expected to maintain 4 percent growth in the first quarter of the present fiscal year compared to 2 percent by the US according the experts that attended the meet. Notably, the Egyptian Minister of Health, Hala Zayed visited China on 1 March to express solidarity in combating the virus. China shared the sixth edition of guidelines on diagnosis and treatment and donated 1,000 virus scanners during the visit. Egypt presently is seeking to strengthen ties with China to enhance cooperation to cope with the COVID-19 crisis as well as bolster long-term economic engagement.

The Chairperson of the Trade Promotion Council of India (TPCI) Mohit Singla on 23 March noted that there is 15 to 20 percent rise in demand of food items such as rice, wheat, pulses, confectioneries, sweets, organic processed food, chillies, ginger, cumin, fennel, sesame seeds, sesame oil etc from Egypt, Israel and Palestine due to disruption in supply chain from China. Singla therefore, suggested that the Indian government could tap into this opportunity to penetrate West Asian markets.


The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) Health Minister, Ehmed Ben Omar announced the first case of COVID-19 positive patient who returned from Saudi Arabia via Tunisia on 24 March 2020. The war-ravaged state split between two rival governments is presently ill equipped to deal with the pandemic. There have been attempts at building a national level disease protection program that failed due to the ongoing civil war. The local offices including health departments in several parts of the state are controlled by militias and coordination is highly fragmented. It is feared that Libya which is already facing acute crisis in terms of health care facilities and shortage of medicines may suffer severe ramifications unless fundamental issues are resolved to face the common threat.


Morocco reported the first case on 2 March 2020 and subsequently, Meknes International Agricultural Exhibition, Fez Festival of World Sacred Music and Agadir Timitar Festival were cancelled. An 89-year-old Italian woman became the first casualty on 10 March. The government suspended Italy bound flights and sea routes on 8 March and 11 March respectively. After the suspension of international flights on 15 March, stranded tourists have been placed in makeshift quarantine camps.

The government instructed the mosques to deliver sermons to create public awareness and all kind of religious gatherings were completely closed on 16 March. The authorities are taking measures to curb misinformation. The police on 19 March arrested a female Youtuber for spreading misinformation about the pandemic. Earlier on 15 March, King Mohammed VI announced the establishment of a special fund for the Management and Response to COVID-19. The government also introduced additional measures to financially protect the families working in the informal sector due to the confinement. Accordingly, family with two or less members; families of up to four members and families of more than four members would be granted US$ 85; US$ 100 and US$ 121 respectively.

In terms of medical measures, there are 44 hospitals in Morocco with 1640 beds for intensive care with an addition of 250 beds to undertake responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis. The government has banned exports of medical protective masks which led to instances of smuggling masks to other states. The authorities claim it is presently at the second stage of local transmission and urged citizens to act responsibly and display patriotism to face the crisis.

Morocco unlike other states in the region has not released prisoners to stop the spread of the virus. The General Delegation for Penitentiary Administration and Reinsertion (DGAPR) has divided the staff in every prison into two groups. Each group have been assigned two-week service to reduce the risks of contamination. The number of visitors to prisons has also been reduced. The government on 21 March released 251 minors from correctional homes and child protection centres.

The National Mechanism for Monitoring and Prevention of Coronavirus on 21 March claimed that there are no positive cases in Western Saharan refugee camps. The Sahrawi National Liberation Army has announced that it would join the national plan to combat the pandemic. There are temporary isolation rooms and quarantine centres for infected and suspected cases in regional hospitals and the National Hospital. The Sahrawi returnees have been urged to obey the quarantine requirement.


Tunisia recorded the first case on 2 March 2020 and the first death occurred on 8 March. The screening procedures at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport were initiated on 29 February. The government suspended all international flights on 16 March and confinement has been extended until 4 April. It also introduced measures such as ban on sale of hookahs, compulsory use of disposable cups etc. There were instances of public defiance of confinement orders and the government in response has threatened to pursue legal course. The state also deployed the military to enforce the confinement. On 31 March 1420 prisoners were released to check the spread of virus in Tunisia’s prisons.

The government is taking measures such as expansion of public health care facilities; involvement of private sector and hospitalisation at homes and ensuring visits by the health officials. Tunisian government has announced that it has secured US$ 875 million to cope with the economic fallout of the pandemic. Tax debts and taxes on small and medium enterprises have been postponed. For lower-income families, repayment of loans has been suspended and the provision of financial aid has been introduced. Italy on 25 March also loaned US$ 54 million to Tunisia for social and economic rehabilitation in the background of the pandemic. It also received around US$ 275 million for the European Union (EU). The trickle-down effect of these financial packages however, has been slow, and protest erupted on 31 March demanding the government to implement the said programmes with immediate effect.


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