António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), has warned that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could push millions of Africans into extreme poverty.

He said in a video message on a policy report called “The Impact of COVID-19 in Africa” that nations in the continent have been responding swiftly to the crisis, and as of now, reported cases are lower than feared with more than 2,500 deaths.

The report said COVID-19 is present in all African countries with most recording fewer than 1,000 cases.

The report also said that the relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases confirmed thus far “have raised hopes that African countries may be spared the worst of the pandemic.”

“Caution is warranted, however, as these are early days in the life cycle of a disease that is still not fully understood and where we have seen repeated patterns of first slow, then exponential growth in the number of cases,” it added.

The UN said the low number of cases could be due to minimal testing and reporting, referring to a World Health Organization (WHO) warning that the pandemic “could kill between 83,000 and 190,000 people in 47 African countries in the first year, mostly depending on governments’ responses.”

The report said the WHO also warned that “the socioeconomic impacts could ‘smolder’ for several years.”

Guterres said, “Much hangs in the balance.”

The UN chief called for international action to strengthen Africa’s healthcare systems, avoid an economic crisis, maintain food supplies, support education, protect jobs, and keep businesses and households afloat.

To address the economic and social consequences of the coronavirus crisis, Guterres said Africa needs over $200 billion and “an across-the-board debt standstill for African countries unable to service their debt, followed by targeted debt relief and a comprehensive approach to structural issues in the international debt architecture to prevent defaults.”

Guterres said. “Already, demand for Africa’s commodities, tourism and remittances are declining” and the trade zone opening has been pushed back.

He said the pandemic “will aggravate long-standing inequalities and heighten hunger, malnutrition, and vulnerability to disease.”

The UN chief applauded the efforts of African countries the way they have been tackling the pandemic, stating most have deepened regional coordination, enforced quarantines and lockdown, deployed health workers, and closed borders.

Guterres said, “They are also drawing on the experience of HIV/AIDS and Ebola to debunk rumors and overcome mistrust of government, security forces, and health workers.”

He said the UN has delivered millions of COVID-19 test kits, respirators, and other supplies, supplying almost the entire continent. The UN report said “maintaining peace and security in Africa remains paramount,” while dealing with the ongoing crisis.