Many experts believe that while COVID-19 can infect anyone regardless of their gender, race, or nationality, people living in the most vulnerable countries will feel the most impact. COVID-19, one of the fastest-moving and hardest-hitting pandemics in human history, is a looming threat to over 1.2 billion people on the continent of Africa.
Even before the pandemic hit the continent, Africa had already been disproportionally affected by communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Reports revealed an increase in non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks and cancer, alongside frequent outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola, measles, meningitis, and monkeypox. Africa also has a long history of underfunded healthcare systems – high medical fees for patients; unreliable stocks of essential medicines, and poor access to health facilities.
While the number of coronavirus cases in Africa is significantly lower than in many countries, there’s no assurance that they could cope with this pandemic. Still, the relatively low numbers of cases and deaths in the continent have raised hopes that it has been spared from the worst of the pandemic. But, they’re wrong. As we see with other infectious diseases like tuberculosis, once this virus has made its way into impoverished places, it can infect and threaten even the most stable healthcare systems in the world.
The Good News
Africa, having experienced several outbreaks, is expected to manage this pandemic well. Many reports show that governments across Africa responded quickly to prevent the spread of the virus. South Africa, for instance, declared a national state of disaster and implemented a nationwide lockdown before reporting its first death from COVID-19. Uganda suspended public gatherings before the first documented case in the country, while Nigeria started screening passengers at international airports nearly one month before the first case was detected.
African countries are used to widespread testing for pathogens such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. Their mechanism in testings can easily be adapted for COVID-19. Many organizations also quickly responded to the virus. The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) held the first of its training sessions about the virus in early February. About 43 countries had already gained competence to test for the virus by mid-March.
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, experts think that some governments’ fast response to the rapid spread of coronavirus gave them an advantage in controlling the transmission rates.
“Early, decisive action taken by many African governments may have slowed transmission. While it is difficult to measure the precise impact of any single intervention, African Union (AU) member states have yet to document the spiraling caseloads seen in parts of the United States and Europe,” a report by the Partnership for Evidence Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC) said.
Experts explained that one of the reasons why the continent has a relatively low number of coronavirus cases is its young people. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 3% of the population is 65 years or older, and 43% are less than 15 years old. Recent data suggest that older people infected with COVID-19 are at significantly greater risk of severe illness. In comparison, 20% of the population in the European Union are 65 years or older and only 17% are under 15.
Africa is Getting More Vulnerable
While this is great news, Africa still faces challenges in protecting its people from the virus. Recent reports predicted that Africa could see COVID-19 mortality rates higher than elsewhere, even in children, due to its lack of hospitals and high prevalence of conditions such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, and malnutrition. Lack of access to diagnostics is also a problem, and the continent has had to wait for the tests to be introduced, a tardy ‘trickle-down’ of diagnostics.
While Africa has enough of a budget to pay for reagents needed for COVID-19 tests, travel restrictions and lockdowns in more than 70 countries have prevented them from buying them. According to Nature.com, a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology, the governments need to pool the procurement and distribution of tests across the continent.
At the same time, they need to work with non-government laboratories and the private sector to roll out testing on the subnational level and to make sure testing technologies can use the existing platforms that have been the backbone for large-scale testing for HIV and tuberculosis.
As of now, at least 40 governments in Africa have implemented movement restrictions; 26 have declared states of emergency or states of disaster; and in at least 20 African countries, some of the measures implemented are of indefinite duration. Many people in the African countries are getting more scared, saying that there’s a low chance they could survive the pandemic. A recent survey by PERC revealed that half of the respondents said they would run out of money if they had to stay home for 14 days.
It is expected that the lowest-income households would run out of food and money in less than a week. Many social media users in Nigeria and Kenya have admitted that hunger has forced them to violate stay-at-home orders to search for food. The researchers also found that 71% of the Northern region in Africa don’t have physical space to isolate sick people, as opposed to 46% in the Southern region, 38% in the Eastern region, 30% in the Western region, and 19% in the Central region.
Africa was already vulnerable even before the pandemic happened. A 2016 report by the think-tank the RAND Corporation on the most vulnerable countries to infection revealed that 22 out of 25 countries belong to this continent. Many countries also lack basic hygiene needs and health infrastructure. People live in unfavorable conditions in major cities and communities displaced in sub-Saharan African countries, forcing them to migrate to other countries and live in non-sterile environments in camps.
Experts warn that the pandemic could make Africa more vulnerable to the virus, resulting in the heavier death toll in the region if it overwhelms local health services. Fears are also emerging that this crisis may cause famine in combination with the drought and conflict already affecting much of Africa. The PERC’s report suggests engaging communities to adapt public health and social measures to the local context and effectively communicating about the risk to sustain public support, achieve widespread adherence, and shield vulnerable populations.
“The findings of this report, along with COVID-19 trend data, will help countries make strategic decisions on relaxing their lockdowns. What we’ve learned from Ebola and other outbreaks is that countries need to decentralize the response to the community level and increase their capacity to identify and diagnose cases,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said.