Until the middle of March 2020, almost three months through the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa recorded very few confirmed cases than anywhere else in the world. The reasons, circumstances and way forward of this situation are yet to be identified amid fears of devastating effects of an outbreak in Africa.
Despite the rapid widespread of the novel coronavirus in different parts of the world, the number of confirmed cases in Africa remains low. While this may be a happy piece of news, it does not eliminate the fact that an outbreak in Africa would be disastrous and that there might be undetected cases within several African countries. Until the last week of February, almost three months after the novel coronavirus was discovered, there were no confirmed cases on the continent. The Arab Republic of Egypt was the first African county to be affected by the virus, which is now known as COVID-19, and it remains the country with the most confirmed cases in Africa.
Realising the seriousness of the situation, the World Health Organisation (WHO)regional office for Africa has been supporting member states prepare for a potential case of COVID-19 in a number of ways. The WHO has dispatched experts to countries believed to be at higher risk of an outbreak of coronavirus to assist in areas including case management, surveillance and early detection. Across the continent, the WHO is working to increase the capacity of national laboratories to detect COVID-19 by supplying reagents, testing equipment and training for staff. Essential personal protective equipment has also been dispatched by the WHO to some countries in Africa.
African countries are both vulnerable and potentially more resilient to the coronavirus. On the one hand, the population is much younger than in Europe and China. The median population age in the UK is 40.2 and in China it is 37, but this figure is 17.9 in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. In general, models that enable the continent to better allocate scarce resources to better prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic are crucial. While no accurate reasons have been announced for the low number of COVID-19 cases in Africa, experts speculate a few scenarios which either relate to positive outcomes of the safety measures taken by African countries or to the lack of medical expertise and capacity to detect the cases which may already exist.
Supporting the pessimistic argument, the WHO says that most of the African countries with testing capacity have between 100 and 200 testing kits. Researchers think many more will probably be needed as cases spread, but it is much better to have some than no capacity at all. However, this means that there may be cases of COVID-19 that will not be detected, especially knowing that many cases of young people do not show symptoms, and this increases the risk of faster spread of the virus to other more vulnerable people. This may not be the case, because if it was there would have been numerous alerts in hospitals in African capitals and local intensive care units, which would have recorded a massive influx of patients.
Another suggestion for the low number of COVID-19 cases in Africa is the continent’s low-travel exposure to China compared to Europe, which is around one Africa-China travel exchange to every 10 Europe-China travel exposures. This could explain the slow introduction of the virus on the continent when the virus was first discovered and spread in China.Since then, the situation has changed as the coronavirus has spread globally, with a pandemic that exposes Africa to importations of the virus from Europe. The first confirmed and recorded cases on the continent were imported from Europe, mainly from Italy and France. This leads to the other assumption related to the safety measures imposed by many African countries to control the spread of the virus.
The risk of importation into Africa is currently lower than elsewhere because several countries have taken the right measures at the right time, such as reducing flights from abroad to limit the risk of importing COVID-19. For instance, Zimbabwe declared a national disaster even before the country has confirmed a case. It banned gatherings of more than 100 people for the next two months.Also, if countries were able to detect the first cases and isolate them each time, there would be less risk of secondary or local transmission. The idea is to continue to work on a day-to-day basis to strengthen all elements of the response, from surveillance coordination to early warnings, diagnosis and public health management.
Researchers also commented that Africa’s experience in dealing with several outbreaks in the past makes the continent more prepared to face a new disease. Many African countries set up public health institutions in the wake of the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa in 2013, and the African Union established the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which coordinates the fight against outbreaks.Until the middle of March 2020, almost three months through the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa recorded very few confirmed cases than anywhere else in the world. Most of these cases are concentrated in six countries: Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal.