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What Underlies Africa’s Covid-19 Success Story?
It has ultimately been the swift and decisive action taken throughout much of Africa...nevertheless, the slower spread may infer a slower-burning pandemic.
17 December, 2020

When Africa’s first Covid-19 case was reported on the 14th of February, many in the West predicted utter ruin for the continent. As soon as the virus had spread through its slums, Africa’s fragile health system would collapse, and millions would die.

It hasn’t happened – in fact not even close. With just 1 ventilator and 3 ICU beds for every 100,000 Africans, the continent has experienced a relatively low number of deaths compared to the majority of the Western world.

As of the 16th of December, Africa had suffered 2.4 million cases and 57 thousand deaths. Those numbers stand in stark contrast to Europe’s 20.4 million cases and 472 thousand deaths, and the US’s 16.5 million cases and 303 thousand deaths.

To some extent, the demographics of Africa have made it less vulnerable to the virus. The continent has the youngest average age of any region at just 20, compared with Europe’s 43 and North America’s 39, a key factor in the hospitalization and mortality rates of Covid-19 patients.

Africa also has relatively few old-age care homes, environments that became hotspots for transmission in Western countries and accounted for almost 50% of all deaths from Covid-19 in the UK in the first four months of the British outbreak.

Furthermore, various studies, including a recently published article by Indrani Roy of University College London, have asserted that warmer climates reduce transmission rates.

“For transmitting the virus, global temperature played an important role and a moderately cool environment was the most favourable state. The risk from the virus was reduced significantly for warm places and countries.”

When studying global temperatures during the initial stages of the pandemic outbreak in March and April, Roy found that the average temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius and above in the African continent, as well as regions such as Southeast Asia and Australia, resulted in “a significantly lesser degree of vulnerability” of transmission.

Nevertheless, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) Covid-19 response report, it has ultimately been the swift and decisive action taken throughout much of Africa that has largely spared the continent from the significantly higher infection and death rates of the US and Europe.

A certain Western-centric arrogance perpetuates the misconception that diseases only come from Africa, who in turn rely on foreign aid to combat them. In fact, Africans know all too well about deadly infectious diseases, and their expertise is widespread and well-nurtured. Across the continent, local medical professionals have spent many years combating the likes of HIV/AIDS and also malaria, which despite remarkable efforts in tackling its spread, is set to kill more than 400,000 Africans this year – 200,000 less than ten years ago, but still far more than Covid-19 will kill.

Infrastructure to deal with recent outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its neighbours was quickly adapted to screen for Covid-19. Many African states have learnt from Ebola how to quickly and effectively isolate those infected, then track, trace, and quarantine their contacts until testing is available.

The vast majority of lockdowns were enacted quickly and with public support.

“As of April 1, 2020, there were around 6,000 confirmed cases across all of Africa, with most countries having less than 100 cases. Despite this low level of detected cases, most African countries had stringent measures such as school closures, workplace closures and travel restrictions in place” notes Prevent Epidemics, an organization that works with governments to implement health policy. 

However, a report carried out by Prevent Epidemics’ Partnership for Evidence-Based Response to Covid-19 (PERC) concluded that, similar to much of the Western world six months after the initial outbreak, “the data suggest that people across the African Union see Covid-19 as a serious threat, but that for many, the economic and social burdens of public health and social measures may outweigh their personal risk perception of catching the virus”.

Nevertheless, the relative strength of Africa’s response should certainly not afford relaxation, and the slower spread of infection may infer a longer, slower-burning pandemic.

Falling temperatures across the extreme north of Africa have likely contributed to recent increases in infections and deaths, which rose by 20% and 26% respectively across the continent from the end of October to mid-November according to the Africa CDC, as well as fears of a significant second wave emerging in South Africa and Kenya. Furthermore, a UK-based project, Our World in Data, reports that testing capacity remains low with 70% of all testing taking place in just 10 of Africa’s 54 sovereign countries.

Crucially, as vaccinations roll out over Europe, the question remains over Africa’s prospects for widespread vaccination. Around two-thirds of the population need the vaccine to extinguish community transmission, requiring extensive transport and advanced healthcare infrastructure.

“The vaccination of two-thirds of Africa’s 1.2 billion population will still require huge investment and faces substantial logistical challenges. According to a WHO analysis, the African region has an average score of 33% readiness for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine roll-out – far below the necessary 80% benchmark” reports The Lancet, a medical journal.

Celebrating Africa’s response to the pandemic thus far does not consider where the continent can go from here – it is clear that no community can be safe from Covid-19 until all communities are protected. As the West eagerly welcomes vaccine rollouts from the front of the queue, they must consider the mutual importance of supporting vaccination programs in resource-constrained regions.

Frank Hearnshaw, 2nd Year PPE student at King's College London

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