COVID-19 hits Africa

| August 2, 2020 | 0 Comments
A woman from the United Nations' stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo washes her hands as part of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Africa has fared better than other continents in stemming the pandemic, partly due to strict lockdown measures. (Photo: MONUSCO)

A woman from the United Nations’ stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo washes her hands as part of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Africa has fared better than other continents in stemming the pandemic, partly due to strict lockdown measures. (Photo: MONUSCO)

Despite a woeful medical infrastructure, widespread disease, food insecurity and crowded urban slums, much of Africa — compared to the Americas and Europe — has largely been spared a wrenching public-health disturbance from this year’s raging coronavirus. So far. At the same time, economies throughout the continent have tanked and Africans have been thrown back into poverty.
Has the pestilence been biding its time and gathering strength to burst out in months to come? Is Africa’s predominantly youthful population — the median age is 19 — a protective factor? Has Africa’s usually warm and humid weather in and around the tropics slowed the virus’s spread? Or did the fact that the virus first proliferated in China, Europe and the Americas offer African political leaders valuable lessons, allowing them to lock down their own nations in a timely and preventive manner? Or have Africans finally just drawn lucky straws?
Whatever the cause, Africa is avoiding a fatal decimation only simultaneously to suffer — possibly because of a prudent management of the COVID-19 pandemic — a massive contraction of its 54 national economies, large reductions in GDPs per capita and the kinds of employment losses and company collapses that plunge Africans (and well-meaning outsiders) into the depths of acute despair and worry. Just when Africa was finally entering a zone of 21st-Century prosperity, the coronavirus has wiped out any possibility of the sustained economic growth on which many Africans were counting.
The IMF estimates that sub-Saharan Africa’s economy will shrink by 3.2 per cent in 2020, with real per capita GDP contracting by more than 5 per cent. Growth will collapse in many countries, especially those dependent on tourism and resources, such as oil and mineral exporters. Growth in more diversified non-resource-based economies is expected to come to a “near standstill.” Overall, in sub-Saharan Africa, the coronavirus could destroy 10 years’ worth of economic growth and progress.
The results of the virus have wiped out job opportunities, educational advances and the potential of middle-class achievement for an entire generation of emerging Africans. A World Bank study fears as many as 58 million Africans will be pushed by the virus into “extreme poverty.” Food prices are soaring because of scarcities, doubling the pain for impoverished villagers and urban dwellers facing the virus on empty stomachs.

Virus may delay development

Staff members from Nigeria's State Environmental Protection Agency in Lagos practise social distancing. (Photo: MONUSCO)

Staff members from Nigeria’s State Environmental Protection Agency in Lagos practise social distancing. (Photo: MONUSCO)

The Malawi National Planning Commission believes that the coronavirus lockdown will leave that country $12 billion poorer — the equivalent of two years of GDP. Angola, Djibouti, Kenya and Zambia may be unable to service their borrowings from China, leading to further economic pain. Everywhere, even if deaths are relatively few, whole national economies are being shattered — and not just for a few months. Africa’s development has been pushed downward, perhaps by decades.
Africa’s population numbers about 1.3 billion, and is rising at a rapid rate. By 2050, there will be about 2.6 billion Africans (despite the coronavirus, despite HIV/AIDS and malaria and despite food shortages and starvation). Nigeria, now a country of more than 200 million, will more than double in size and become the third most populous place on the planet. Lagos, already a massive urban conglomerate of 21 million people will soar in size along with 100 other Nigerian cities with populations of more than one million each. Similar kinds of growth will take place in Tanzania, soon to be the fifth largest country in the world, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, destined to be the eighth largest, edging out Brazil.
If the coronavirus ultimately hits Africa the way it has pummeled Brazil, China, India, Italy, Spain, France, Russia and the United States, the African population surge would be limited and hundreds of thousands of Africans would die without much medical help, ventilators, oxygen assistance or palliative care. After all, globally, Africa has the fewest physicians, nurses and medicine supplies per capita. Canadians benefit from 2.7 physicians per 1,000 residents. Africans make do with an average of 0.19 trained medical personnel per 1,000 people. In Malawi, one of the worst-served, the ratio is one physician to 52,000 people. Only South Africa, on the continent, shows personnel ratios similar to nations in Europe and North America.
Given the woeful paucity of medical personnel and services, and very few intensive care units and intensive care beds, Africa is hardly protected against the coronavirus. Nor, across the continent, is water and soap easily available. Washing hands cannot be accomplished easily by most inhabitants in most cities and countries on the continent. Nor are Africans willing to wear face masks, even if they have them, the way Asians, and now most North Americans, do. Social distancing is almost impossible in the congested cities and across the shack communities of the continent.
Despite these harmful realities, the numbers of cases and deaths in Africa are, so far, comparatively modest. Admittedly, aside from South Africa, testing capabilities are mostly absent and in some countries virtually non-existent. Only 3 million people had been tested for the virus by mid-July, with fully 1,944,000 of those tests being administered in South Africa. Whereas the United States by mid-July had tested 109 persons per 1,000 population, the United Kingdom, 96, Canada, 78; South Africa, 31; and Morocco, 21; much of Africa reported far lower testing numbers per 1,000: Rwanda, 12; Ghana, 10; Senegal, 5; Kenya and Uganda, 4; Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, 2; and Nigeria (and many other African countries) 0.74 per 1,000 or fewer. Many coronavirus cases may go unlisted and deaths may be attributed to other plausible causes.

The real numbers could be much higher
Several African observers point to a number of well-reported hot spots within key countries to suggest that real numbers of cases and deaths are much more elevated than those reported. Kano, the centre city of Muslim Northern Nigeria, is one such hot spot of virulence. Another is Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, and the surrounding rural areas of that troubled nation. A third is Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. All have rampant nodes of infection that belie official numbers. Burials are three times more numerous than usual; grave diggers provide data that are tough to refute. In South Sudan, too, there are low reported case figures, but nearly all of its key political figures tested positive for the coronavirus. In that country and in neighboring Kenya, massive and congested refugee camps, where social distancing is impossible, probably harbour the disease. In Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mauritania, coronavirus cases were suddenly doubling in number daily in June. The United Nations forecasts that 300,000 Africans could die as their nations hit a peak infection rate in the coming months.
It took 100 days for Africa to realize its first 100,000 cases of the disease, only 18 days for its next 100,000, 10 days for its third 100,000, and 9 days for its fourth and fifth tranches of cases. If those rate increases continue, the UN prediction may prove too real. Conceivably, too, Africa could eventually catch up with Brazil; on July 10, Brazil (a country of 206 million people) had 1,800,000 confirmed cases and 79,600 deaths. In mid-2020, however, such a dire result for Africa looks distant.
By July 26, The New York Times was reporting there were 828,000 cases of coronavirus across Africa’s 54 nation-states, compared to 4.3 million cases in the United States (whose population is 320 million). South Africa had 434,000 cases; Egypt, 92,000; Nigeria, 40,000; Ghana, 32,000; Algeria, 27,500; Morocco, 20,000; Cameroon, 17,000; Kenya, 16,600; Cote d’Ivoire, 15,500; Ethiopia, 13,400; Sudan, 11,300; Senegal, 9,700; the Democratic Republic of Congo, 9,000; Gabon and Guinea, both 7,000; Mauritania, 5,000; the Central African Republic, 5,000; Zambia, 4,481; Malawi, 3,453; and Somalia, 3,000. Smaller countries on the African continent have reported fewer than 2,500 cases each: Zimbabwe, 2,434; Mozambique, 1,669; Tunisia, 1,443; Namibia, 1,178; Uganda, 1,100; Angola, 934; Chad, 915; Botswana, 686; Tanzania, 509 (as of June 1); and Mauritius, 344. Lesotho only announced its first case in late May, and reported a total of 446 cases as of July 26. Some of these numbers are particularly suspect because of the weakness of statistical services and other reporting mechanisms. But the strangest numbers are those from Zimbabwe and Tanzania, both authoritarian countries, the latter tightly run by a president who derides the coronavirus as a hoax.
Conceivably, there has been massive underreporting, given the paucity of available tests and poor statistical services. Doctors without Borders asserts, for example, that the real rate of positive cases in Cameroon is five times higher than reported. But, still, in terms of cases, Africa has not yet been ravaged the way we would have anticipated.
Whereas the U.S. has endured 149,000 deaths as of July 26, across Africa deaths from the coronavirus have been comparatively few. Only 18,000 are reported across the entire continent. If the United Nations is right, that number is five or 10 times lower than it should be, realistically. Individual African states, with limited statistical experience and rudimentary reporting capabilities, may both lag and undercount. Many deaths may occur away from hospitals and from confusing causes. Nevertheless, as of July 26, deaths from the coronavirus are: South Africa, 7,000; Egypt, 6,000; Algeria, 1,151; Nigeria, 900; Sudan, 717; Cameroon, 385; Morocco, 305; Democratic Republic of Congo, 204; Kenya, 278; Mauritania, 156; Ghana, 161; Ethiopia, 209; Cote d’Ivoire, 94; Somalia, 91; Senegal, 187; Tunisia, 50; Central African Republic, 59; Gabon 49; Guinea, 42; Zambia, 139; Malawi, 87; Angola, 50; Zimbabwe, 34; Mauritius, 10; Mozambique, 11; Botswana, 1; Namibia, 8; Lesotho, 11; Uganda, 1.
If there are no more than steady upticks in deaths from the virus over the next six months and, despite the dire United Nations’ predictions and the rightful forecasts of Doctors Without Borders and other charitable organizations, Africa could escape the onslaughts of fatalities that have ravaged the Americas, Europe and Asia. But it is equally likely that numerous unrecorded fatalities have occurred distant from hospitals, and from unspecified causes. The fact that Uganda has recorded no deaths at all, whereas neighbouring Kenya’s toll is approaching 200, seems inherently unlikely.
What possibly has gone right? Key African countries locked themselves down early, made social distancing the rule, closed their borders, imposed oft-draconian curfews and enforced these impositions with sometimes heavy-handed policing. South Africa led the way, tried to confine inhabitants to quarters, curtailed all but the most essential kinds of shopping and movements, made mask-wearing mandatory and only permitted people to leave their homes for one-kilometre walks and runs in May. After opening a little, President Cyril Ramaphosa realized in July that he had eased restrictions too much, so he reimposed a liquor ban and reinstated a curfew.
Zimbabwe arrested 40,000 citizens for various violations of lockdown rules, such as moving more than five kilometres from homes, or failing to wear masks in public. Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya shut airports and their mutual borders. Senegal, on the west coast, was another nation to close itself off from the outside world. No nation (bar Tanzania) dithered. Many states imposed quarantines on citizens and others coming from abroad and were careful to impose lengthy quarantines on anyone who tested positive.
Malawians and Zimbabweans arriving from South Africa and abroad, however, frequently fled their quarantine camps, bribing guards or hopping fences. Some had tested positive for the virus. But, in places with leaders who commanded respect, national lockdowns, curfews and travel bans have largely been observed.
Africa learned from its battles with Ebola in 2014-2015 and 2019-2020. Isolation was critical. Contact tracing of individuals in presumed physical proximity to infected victims was necessary to combat Ebola, and now the coronavirus.

Tough versus lenient controls
A key to Africa’s early success was consummate, articulate leadership. South Africa’s Ramaphosa set an example by imposing tough controls and by honestly explaining why social isolation was going to be so beneficial to his people, saving lives. Ghanaian and Senegalese authorities behaved in the same manner. All wore masks and obeyed their own controls. They were credible in what they forced their citizens to do, and clear about the necessity of obeying public health common sense.
In a show of responsible leadership new to much of Africa, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera, elected in late June, cancelled his inaugural ceremony and, in mid-July, after 83 new cases nationally within 24 hours, promulgated tough new measures: He banned mobile markets and street-vending, shut all public drinking and entertainment establishments, suspended weddings and sporting events, cancelled traditional dances and ceremonies, forbade religious ceremonies to continue unless everyone wore masks, and told the country’s 19 million citizens to stay home.
Only a few politicians tried to play the fool and behave duplicitously with their publics. President John Magufuli of Tanzania, an outlier, derided the science of COVID-19, advocated for home-grown herbal remedies, sacked health ministers and refused to close schools or curtail ordinary daily doings in any manner. He claimed that the coronavirus was the devil’s work and thus kept churches open and businesses operating at full speed. Neglecting the early lessons of Burkina Faso and Nigeria, where church and mosque gatherings had spread the virus, he asserted that only churchgoing could drive out the “satanic” virus. Tanzania thus is believed to have positive cases and deaths far in excess of those officially admitted. (The ministry of health was prevented from releasing any statistics after about June 1, hence the outdated data above.)
Nigeria was another African nation with leadership largely in denial despite alarming reports from Kano, Lagos and Port Harcourt. Tests were hard to obtain. Physicians in Kano’s teaching hospital often had to send sick patients home, despite the severity of their illnesses. Doctors there and elsewhere in Nigeria also lacked protective clothing, even gloves, and therefore ran major risks in treating likely COVID-19 patients who waited interminably in long lines outside their hospitals. One physician in Kano’s teaching hospital died from the virus and almost a fifth of the entire medical and nursing staff tested positive.
Despite Magufuli-like politicians and their errors, Africa has thus far (pending a possible second wave) dodged the COVID-19 bullet more effectively than the nations of the developed world. Maybe surviving this pandemic reasonably well from a public-health viewpoint will compensate for the damage the global shutdown (and low mineral and petroleum prices) will do economically to the Africans who have managed to survive.

Robert I. Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and he was Fulbright Distinguished Professor at Carleton and Waterloo universities. He wrote The Corruption Cure (Princeton University Press, 2017) and will publish Anticorruption (MIT Press) this year. His Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness in the Twenty-first Century (Oxford University Press) appears this August.

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Category: Dispatches

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Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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