Covid-19 in Africa: a success or a tragedy foretold?

The very fast implementation of political measures to combat covid-19 might partially explain the “African success” in this pandemic. However, all its direct and indirect consequences, as well as the long-term sustainability of these measures, are not very clear yet.

The corona virus spread across Africa more slowly than in the rest of the world. The confirmed cases of illness are a few hundred thousands, the deaths recorded because of Covid-19 are close to ten thousand. But nobody can tell with certainty how many are affected by the virus and how many deaths were caused by this disease. Testing is quite limited. Health systems in the continent are unable to diagnose or treat most illnesses even in normal times.

If we take as given that the disease has a lower incidence in the African continent, the question remains: why? There are still many concerns about the epidemiological fundamentals of the disease. Hot weather can slow down the transmission of the virus. The incidence in the African population may be lower because it is younger – even though it is often weakened due to poor nutrition, or as a result of other diseases and viruses with high prevalence in Africa, such as HIV. For sure experience with the Ebola crisis can be an asset for the population, particularly in Western Africa, where everyone became more sensitive to the need of adopting preventive behaviors. It also contributes to recognize the importance of protecting medical staff and investing in medical research capacity with the creation of the African CDC and of several laboratories with high bio Safety levels (level 3) in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. But most importantly, the Ebola experience has taught the importance of strong leaderships, who are not afraid to act early to prevent the epidemic.This is what has happened in most African countries with this pandemic. They closed schools, churches and markets as soon as the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 appeared.

The very fast implementation of these political measures to combat covid-19 might partially explain the “African success” in this pandemic. However, all its direct and indirect consequences, as well as the long-term sustainability of these measures, are not very clear yet.

Recent surveys suggest that hunger and poverty have worsened in the African continent since the beginning of the pandemic. People surviving in extreme poverty cannot cope with measures of social distancing without social protection. As a result of the overall situation, there has been repeated conflict between the population and the security forces in the context of the implementation of the rules of social distancing – causing more deaths in some countries than the actual covid-19. Paradoxically, these situations of conflict may complicate even further this fight against covid-19.

Barriers to international trade created by this pandemic also made life even more difficult for people in sub-Saharan Africa – a region with  limited production capacity and highly dependent on imports. In particular, there has been very limited import of pesticides essential to fight the locust plagues that have affected Africa in recent months. These locust plagues have been destroying agricultural production that is vital to ensure food security for millions of people – in a context where the capacity of the international community for cooperation is strongly diminished. The direct consequences of this situation will be dramatic in terms of losses of life and may also decrease resilience to new pandemic waves of covid-19 in the coming months.

Side by side with the pandemic, the already immense challenges to the sustainable development of the African continent are worsening. Attacks by Islamic extremists in northern Mozambique and other African countries have intensified after Ramadan in late May. Also, in the last month, several floods have afflicted millions of people in East Africa. These events have forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes in search of shelter that will allow them to avoid almost certain death. Difficulties in assisting these people are unsurprisingly made more complicated in a pandemic context where resources for international cooperation are scarce – and of course there are no obvious ways to save these people’s lives without exposing them to the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

In this difficult context, it is still too soon to judge whether the situation on the African continent is a success or a tragedy foretold. For the first possibility to prevail, a coordinated effort by the international community is necessary. The financial and human resources it can contribute with are critical – and some media attention during the current pandemic can be the seemingly small contribution that makes the difference and saves millions of lives.

Catia Batista and Pedro C. Vicente
Scientific Directors of NOVAFRICA and Professors at Nova SBE


This article was originally published in Portuguese on June 12, 2020, in the “Publico” newspaper: