Why predictions of coronavirus doom for Africa were wildly off track
The pandemic’s outcome in Africa stands in stark contrast to what was predicted, particularly by outsiders
The dreaded second wave of Covid-19 has arrived. European nations are reimposing lockdown measures. Close to 220,000 Americans alone have now died from the virus. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has cautioned his country that they are “on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring”.
On September 30 the worldwide Covid-19 death toll passed the grim milestone of 1-million. And yet, despite initial predictions of a particularly catastrophic loss of life in Africa, the region appears to have dodged the worst of the coronavirus’s epidemiological impact.
World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows that, eight months into the pandemic, the continent of 1.2-billion people has recorded 1.5-million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and roughly 37,000 deaths. By comparison, Canada, an advanced nation of 38-million people with a well-funded public health-care system — and which has generally navigated the pandemic well — has had more than 9,500 Covid-19 deaths. The number of new cases in Africa has also been steadily declining for the past two months.
WHO experts point to three possible reasons why Africa’s Covid mortality rate is much lower, even when accounting for a lower percentage of testing and adjusting for an increase in excess deaths: Africa’s youthful population, low population density and stringent lockdowns ordered early on by governments across Africa after the WHO declared a global pandemic. This was despite the continent collectively having fewer than 100 cases at the time.
Two other overlooked reasons are African populations’ unrelenting ingenuity in the face of hardship, and their ability to learn from previous experiences with contagious disease outbreaks — most notably the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed 11,000 people.
In March, when Italy overtook China as the epicentre of the pandemic, Somalia — one of the poorest, most conflict-riven nations in the world — sent 20 doctors to Italy to assist in its response. By May, scientists in Ghana and Senegal were trialling $1 coronavirus testing kits, although these are still awaiting certification. Nigeria was among the first nations to implement innovative drive-through testing. In Liberia, where nine out of 10 people live on less than $5.50 a day, effective personal protective equipment is fashioned out of garbage bags.
In Zimbabwe, universities morphed into manufacturing facilities, pumping out gloves, masks and hand sanitisers. SA was swift to impose arguably the world’s strictest lockdown to control the contagion. All over the continent families and communities that are much more tight-knit than the atomised lives of their Western counterparts also enable better contact tracing.
Altogether, the pandemic’s outcome in Africa thus far stands in stark contrast to what was predicted, particularly by outsiders not observing the continent closely. After Africa’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on February 14 in Egypt, a torrent of organisations and pundits foresaw the entire continent helplessly succumbing to worst-case scenarios. In April the UN predicted between 300,000 and 3.3-million Covid deaths, depending on which intervention measures were adopted.
Around the same time two prominent French doctors put forward the racist idea that African populations should be considered natural test subjects for experimental Covid-19 vaccines. Their suggestion followed a popular line of thinking that Africa’s low-income populations, informal economies and underresourced health-care systems meant it was obvious that the virus would run rampant.
An editor in British newspaper The Guardian surmised that “Africa is not equipped to cope with a public health emergency and it is now a race against time to prevent the pandemic taking hold”. Philanthropist Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates, told CNN on April 10 that she envisioned bodies piling up in African streets. As it appears now, these predictions more accurately describe what has unfolded in the US — still the world’s richest, most powerful nation.
That said, Africa’s response to the pandemic has not been perfect. Law enforcement in numerous nations has been heavy-handed in the enforcement of lockdowns, sometimes lethally. Government officials from what are some of the world’s poorest countries have been implicated in corruption scandals around the procurement of medical supplies and protective equipment. Millions of children have missed out on crucial vaccinations because of lockdowns. Unproven herbal remedies have been pitched as cures.
Meanwhile, extreme poverty and hunger are also forecast to rise, and highly indebted, commodity-based African economies may suffer disproportionately from the pandemic-induced contraction of the global economy. Yet these are also predictions. And as the continent has repeatedly shown, predictions about Africa — one way or another — often don’t come true.
• Hiebert, former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor, is a research analyst based in Winnipeg, Canada.
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