Key Finding

Generally, U.S. operations in Africa are in areas of instability and thus have low levels of international air travel. As a result, U.S. forces in Africa tend to be postured in regions that are less likely to import COVID-19. African countries that serve as anchors of regional stability—such as Morocco, South Africa, Algeria, and Kenya—tend to be the countries at greatest risk of importing COVID-19 infections.

In this report—one of several from a RAND Corporation team examining the role of commercial air travel in the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—we use our COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization (CAT-V) tool to quantify the potential vectors of transmission to countries in the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) area of responsibility (AOR), which encompasses every country in Africa except Egypt. The tool combines COVID-19 case data from Johns Hopkins University with detailed air travel data from the International Air Transport Association.

With respect to U.S. security objectives in Africa, COVID-19 presents challenges that go beyond the immediate health risks to U.S. military personnel and partner forces. To the extent that pandemic pressures impede economic activity, undermine the state apparatus, and reduce the effectiveness of security forces in key states, these disruptions will create ongoing challenges for AFRICOM in its efforts to bolster security, stability, governance, and development across the continent.

We developed the CAT-V tool to estimate how infections are likely to propagate across the world. In another report, we demonstrated that the tool can provide reliable estimates of countries that are most likely to experience COVID-19 outbreaks, even where testing is lacking. This capability makes the tool particularly useful for AFRICOM and other geographic combatant commands.

Taking early 2020 infection and air travel data into account, the CAT-V tool indicates that the near-term driver of COVID-19 risk in Africa will be the flow of travelers from Western Europe. This finding reverses the traditional view of epidemiological threats flowing from Africa into the developed world.

Within AFRICOM's AOR, the countries at greatest risk of importing a significant number of COVID-19 cases that could, in turn, lead to significant community transmission are, in descending order, Morocco, South Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, and Kenya. Notably, those countries include key U.S. security cooperation partners, as well as populous and wealthy states typically viewed as anchors of regional stability, leaders of regional economic communities, and powerful players in the African Union.

The COVID-19 risks to these key African states have emanated primarily from the United States' closest partners in Europe. As highlighted in the map below, as of March 15, 2020, the risk of COVID-19 importation to Morocco by air travel originated mostly from France and Italy. Meanwhile, the risk to South Africa has originated mostly from Switzerland and Germany, and the risk to Algeria has originated mostly from France. The map, which displays the importation risk into Morocco by country, highlights the role of European air travelers compared with travelers from Africa or other regions.

Risk of COVID-19 Importation to Morocco on March 15, 2020

A heat map of Europe and northern Africa shows the risk of importing COVID-19 from various countries. Red lines show air travel routes importing COVID-19 to Morocco from countries throughout Europe and beyond. The heaviest lines appear to come from France and Italy.

NOTE: The width of each line in this map is proportional to the number of imported cases. The line from Spain to Morocco represents about 5.5 cases per month.

The bubble chart below illustrates the COVID-19 air travel risk to Africa's wealthiest and most-populous states, including Egypt. This chart draws on 2018 data from the World Bank. The dashed black line represents the continent's average per capita gross domestic product (GDP), and the circles depict the daily number of imported cases of COVID-19. The chart further underscores the salience of the risk to Morocco, South Africa, Algeria, and Kenya.

Risk of COVID-19 Importation to African Countries, by Population and GDP, March 2020

Country Cases Per Month Population (millions) 2018 Nominal GDP (billions)
Morocco 35 36 $117.9
Egypt 20 98.4 $250.9
South Africa 11 57.8 $368.3
Algeria 10 42.2 $173.8
Tunisia 8 11.6 $39.9
Kenya 4 51.4 $87.9
Mauritius 3 1.3 $14.2
Tanzania 3 56.3 $58
Nigeria 2 195.9 $397.3

Of these nine countries importing the most COVID-19 cases in mid-March, all have above-average per capita GDPs, except for Kenya and Tanzania. Meanwhile, most countries importing fewer COVID-19 cases in mid-March have below-average per capita GDPs.

NOTE: For each country, the size of the bubble is proportional to the number of daily imported cases in mid-March. Morocco's bubble represents just more than one case every day, South Africa's bubble represents about one case every third day, and Nigeria's bubble represents about one case every twelfth day.

On the other hand, our analysis indicates that COVID-19 poses less direct operational risk to AFRICOM than one might expect. Countries in the AFRICOM AOR that host significant U.S. forces or where the United States has significant security objectives have been at relatively low risk of importing COVID-19 via air travel. In particular, we found that importation risk to each of those countries in March 2020 was less than 1 percent of the importation risk to Morocco.

In Djibouti, which hosts the largest presence of U.S. forces in the AFRICOM AOR, the COVID-19 risk has originated primarily from Qatar and secondarily from France. Despite recent Chinese strategic interest in Djibouti, including China's development of a military airfield and commercial port, fewer than 100 air travel passengers to Djibouti originated from China in March 2020. The COVID-19 risk from China to Africa has been lower than might be expected, given China's role in propagating the virus to East Asia, Europe, and North America.

Somalia's overall risk of importation is even lower than that of Djibouti. The risk to Somalia has emanated primarily from Sweden and Norway. In the Sahel and Lake Chad region, which also hosts U.S. forces, Niger and Chad both have faced a similarly low importation risk, emanating mostly from France.

Caveats

In accordance with RAND's quality assurance standards, this analysis is based on the best available data. However, COVID-19 is an evolving threat, and even the best available data being used by government agencies and research institutes have very significant limitations. In the first report in this series, we outline several caveats about using country-level data, assuming equal passenger risk profiles, drawing on inaccurate country caseload reports, and being restricted by other data limitations.

For the analysis described in this report, it is important to note our assumption that infection among international air travelers matches the infection rate of the overall population. International air travelers from a country make up a relatively small subgroup of that country's population. During any given stage of a pandemic outbreak, this subgroup, including individuals who could be visitors to the country of origin, might be at greater or lesser risk of infection than the national population as a whole is.

References

The COVID-19 Air Traffic Visualization tool combines confirmed COVID-19 case data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering's COVID-19 Dashboard with detailed air passenger data from the International Air Transport Association's Nationality Traffic Report program. Together, these data sets allow the researchers to visualize and analyze the estimated transmission of the novel coronavirus via air travel, outline the resulting implications, and offer suggestions for minimizing the most-dangerous potential vectors.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Air Force and conducted jointly within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division and the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.