Coronavirus in Africa: The least affected continent should inspire us in the West

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported on 14 April that the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Africa had passed 15,000. ON 25 September, the organisation said the Covid-19 outbreak in Africa might have passed its peak.

JINJA, Uganda–A UN-standard level-2 mobile treatment facility
(Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Grady Jones, Public Affairs, U.S. AFRICOM)

The news of 15,000 cases of Sars-Cov-2 in Africa came in April, as an emergency shipment of medical supplies for African nations’ health systems departed Addis Ababa. “This will help countries to scale up testing, treat more patients, and ensure health workers are protected,” WHO Regional Office for Africa said.

But since, Covid-19 has not taken hold across the continent, not in April, and still not in September. Many had feared that Sub-Saharan Africa would be the most ill-equipped region of the world to tackle such a disease. And the WHO’s Africa office estimated there were only about five intensive care beds per million people in Africa, compared with about 4,000 per million people in Europe.  

Unlike pre-Covid time, I wasn’t able to go and report there. Since 2009, I have worked as a journalist on African affairs, mainly for the BBC World Service, and was a freelance correspondent in East Africa between 2010 and 2012, then was posted in Central African Republic for the World Food Programme in 2014. In between, I reported in about 15 African countries. But 2020 is not a year for flying and risking spreading viruses across continents. So I have been monitoring the situation from England.

According to the WHO, in September, 77,147 cases were recorded in Africa, down from 131,647 in the previous four weeks. “Africa has not witnessed an exponential spread of Covid-19 as many initially feared,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. “The downward trend that we have seen in Africa over the past two months is undoubtedly a positive development and speaks to the robust and decisive public health measures taken by governments across the region,” she added.

Over the past four weeks (to 30 September 2020), there has been an average 3% fall in the number of weekly new cases being reported, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC).

For analysts, the main reasons are younger and less dense populations, as well as hot, humid climates.

Africa is cautious, but still doing better than the rest of the world facing Covid-19

WHO still warns governments not to be complacent as countries relax their restrictions. The CDC too remained cautious: “I don’t think we are over the first wave yet, we have not yet hit the bottom at all,” said the CDC’s John Nkengasong.

The pandemic also had a serious impact on African economies, according to the New York Times, affecting foremost the continent’s growing middle class and deepening and extreme poverty.

Sub-Saharan Africa is disproportionally affected by communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, cholera, Ebola and tuberculosis, but Covid-19 was way less harmful. But this is hardly reported as newsworthy in the western media, because it doesn’t impact wealthier countries. For instance, in 2018, 228 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide, and an estimated 405,000 malaria deaths worldwide, but 93% of these cases occurring in Africa. Also Ebola is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, a highly infectious virus that can kill up to 90 percent of the people who catch it, causing terror among infected communities.

Southern and Northern Africa are the most affected African regions. The North Africa region recorded a 14% increase in cases in September. Morocco has been experiencing an increase in new cases and had the highest number of new cases on the continent over the past week. Libya and Tunisia were also among the five countries with the highest number of new cases over the week at number three and four. The others countries reporting high number of new cases are South Africa which was second late September, and Ethiopia at position five. South Africa is currently the first on the continent in cumulative cases, ahead of Morocco, Egypt and Ethiopia.


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But most African countries didn’t have a problem getting people to wear masks, wash their hands, trace who was sick and, most of all, take care of their closest ones in their community.

According to the CDC, their experience in fighting AIDS, Ebola and malaria did benefit the African populations and governments in the case of the Covid-19.

In Liberia, the first case of covid-19 came from a person who brought the disease from Switzerland. This traveller’s household cook was the next to test positive for the infection. Health practitioners however did use their medical expertise gained in fighting Ebola to help public health authorities to prepare for this new pathogen.

In the same way, since mid-January 2020, the DRC’s Minister of Public Health, Dr Eteni Longondo, has been leading efforts to prepare the DRC for COVID-19, WHO reported. Dr Aaron Aruna, director of the Fight against Diseases in the Ministry of Public Health, said in February that “Having the Ebola screening in place made it easy for us to start screening for coronavirus disease. What we needed to do is not only check people leaving the country, or people travelling from North Kivu to other provinces, but also people coming in.”

In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari announced on April 13, 2020 that the lockdown in place since March 30 in Lagos state, neighbouring Ogun state and Abuja, the nation’s capital, would continue for another 14 days. As of April 12, Nigeria had 343 confirmed cases.  

Africa has reported around 35,000 deaths and nearly 1.5 million confirmed cases in a population of 1 billion. This represents some 1,500 cases and 35 deaths per million compared to the US (the world’s worst affected country), with 2,100 cases and 600 deaths per million (nearly 7 million cases and 200,000 deaths in a population of 328 million).

The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is himself from Ethiopia; he warned the whole continent did need more investments to help provide masks and tests, and food support, but also to improve healthcare in general. The EU has already promise to freeze the debt.

But for now America, Europe and even Australia are definitely the ones that could learn a lesson or two from the African continent in the fight against Covid-19.

Melissa Chemam is a journalist, reporter and author. She covered African affairs from 2009 to 2017, travelling to 15 African countries. She is now a Bristol-based, a lecturer in journalism at UWE and the writer-in-residence at the Arnolfini Gallery.

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