COVID-19 in Africa Could be Devastating

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While much of Africa has seen a relatively low number of cases of COVID-19, years of conflict, drought, famine, and neglect of local healthcare systems could quickly transform these low numbers into outbreaks the continent’s health infrastructure is not equipped to handle.

Africa’s total population is 1.2 billion, and the continent has reported over 95,000 cases so far. All 54 countries have recorded an infection, with Egypt being the first country and Lesotho being the last to do so on May 13. Of these cases, there are 3,000 total deaths.

As of May 21, the countries in Africa with the most cases so far are: South Africa (18,003), Egypt (14,229), Algeria (7,542), Morocco (7,133), and Nigeria (6,677). However, many countries have reported low numbers of cases, such as: Botswana (29), Gambia (24), Namibia (16), Seychelles (11), Lesotho (1).

At least 19 countries on the continent are dealing with ongoing conflict or the aftermath of that conflict and tension. Wars have not only resulted in death, displacement, and lack of access to resources, but have also decimated healthcare systems. For example, the conflict in western Libya has accelerated the decline of the country’s healthcare system, which is ill-equipped to treat the thousands of detainees in overcrowded prisons and detention centers, let alone Libyan citizens. In addition, conflict in Cameroon has destroyed 255 of the 7,451 health facilities in the northwest and southwest. The remaining facilities do not have the space or resources to treat a major outbreak of COVID-19. Nearly one million people were displaced by the conflicts and all flights into the country have been banned, including humanitarian flights brining aid.

Photo: Village man carrying bananas to town.

Many African governments have neglected to invest in healthcare, with elites often opting to travel abroad for medical care.

Sub-Saharan African has 11% of the world’s population, but 24% of the global disease burden. It accounts for less than 1% of the global health spending and only 3% of the world’s health workers. The lack of infrastructure to provide basic healthcare has led to Africa accounting for almost half of the world’s death rate for children under five, the highest maternal mortality rate, and high rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. 

In 2001, the heads of state of 52 African nations committed to spending 15% of their national domestic budgets on healthcare. Only four countries have reached this goal: Tanzania, Rwanda, Botswana, and Zambia. 

Necessary medical equipment is scarce in African hospitals. The Central African Republic only has three ventilators for its population of 5 million people. In Zimbabwe, healthcare workers lack necessities to treat patients, such as gloves and bandages. A shortage of medical equipment, protective gear, and testing is Africa’s biggest hurdle in the fight against the pandemic.

Photo: 727th Air Mobility Squadron, took part in a mission which involved delivering COVID-19 test kits and other equipment to Accra, Ghana.

Photo: An ambulance dedicated to dealing with the Covid-19 cases in Durban, South Africa.

Respiratory infections are the third major cause of death each year in Ethiopia. While there has not been a high number of COVID-19 cases reported, few tests have been done.

In contrast, South Africa has the highest number of cases on the continent, with Cape Town having 10% of the total cases in Africa. More tourism than in other countries in the region increases the likelihood that COVID-19 was brought in earlier. Three major hotspots emerged in the city, contributing to most of the cases. Compared to the rest of South Africa where the rate of positive tests remains around 2%, positive test rates in Cape Town are usually above 10%.

Multiple countries have seen an increase in respiratory illnesses since December but did not report any cases of COVID-19 until months later, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, and Nigeria.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been dealing with conflict in the east for decades and an Ebola outbreak that killed over 2,000 people since 2018. Healthcare workers lack protective equipment, so parents are wary of bringing their children to health centers to get vaccinated for polio, measles, and yellow fever. The dip in vaccination could lead to a resurgence of these diseases on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo: Village on the road to Gisenyi, Rwanda.

Kenyan residents who test positive for coronavirus are sent to quarantine centers and often must pay for their own confinement in centers that have poor hygiene and overcrowding. This makes it impossible to practice social distancing.

Many hospitals and private clinics in Nigeria have closed due to a lack of protective gear for healthcare workers. Residents are not seeking treatment for fear of catching the virus in a hospital.

Seeing how difficult it has been for many richer countries with robust healthcare systems to treat patients during the pandemic, African countries may be facing an impossible situation should the number of cases rise significantly.

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