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How Africa has weathered the COVID-19 storm

Written By: - Date published: 12:25 pm, May 27th, 2020 - 14 comments
Categories: Africa, International, United Nations - Tags: , , , , , , ,

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that COVID-19 has so far made a “soft landfall” in the continent of Africa – with nearly 100,000 cases throughout and a relatively low number of deaths. Compared to other regions, Africa has been spared high infection and mortality rates.

The relatively low levels of infection are a combination of luck and good management. Many African nations implemented lockdown measures early, having seen the results of the virus spreading in countries like Italy or the UK. That Africa was not one of the early regions to suffer gave it time to take preventative action. Its leaders also had the good sense not to call COVID-19 “a little flu”, and subsequently not take appropriate action and condemn many of their citizens to death.

One of the factors that may have made a considerable difference in Africa is the actions of the African Union currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Under his stewardship, the African Union have worked closely and effectively with the WHO on measures to stop the virus spreading throughout the region. They have also worked closely with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to push for debt restructuring in response to the global economic crisis this pandemic has caused. Unlike the European Union, the African Union has proactively helped the 55 nation members work together to combat this virus.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has stood out as a leader during this pandemic, implementing one of the toughest lockdowns in the world to stop the virus. His act fast, act hard policy has been widely praised as showing decisive leadership that has saved lives.


Cyril Ramaphosa at NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg where facilities are in place to treat coronavirus patients. Photo by JEROME DELAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been praised for this decisive leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Ramaphosa has no doubt learnt from his predecessor Thabo Mbeki’s abysmal response to the HIV crisis in South Africa where inaction by the government caused the virus to spread quickly. Sadly it’s through these sort of deadly mistakes that politicians learn the importance of prevention in public health.

The picture isn’t all rosy in Africa. As virus numbers rise, South Africa is warning it could run out of ICU beds in June. There are also grave concerns for the state of the South African economy as a result of the lockdown, given it was already struggling before this crisis.

Issues in South Africa pale in comparison to the issues in Tanzania, where the government is suspected to have covered up the infection rate and death toll. President John Magufuli has led a crackdown on anyone who criticises the government handling of COVID-19, and opposition politicians have had their phones tapped. Tanzania has been an exception in Africa where most governments have implemented a shutdown. In Tanzania, the president has fired health experts and refused to implement a lockdown. Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the Tanzanian government to share data on COVID-19 infection rates and remains worried at the lack of data coming out of the country to date. Kenya has closed its border with Tanzania apart from cargo traffic and imposed testing measures on Tanzanian truck drivers after more than 50 of them tested positive for the virus in a single day.

Tanzania is the outlier, with most other African nations acting responsibly and listening to WHO guidance. 100,000 cases of COVID-19 out of a population of 1.216 billion throughout the African continent is a very good result. Africa is the poorest continent on earth, and only a few decades earlier suffered from European colonisation. HIV and Ebola have added further suffering to a war-torn and impoverished region. The actions of the African Union, and the majority of its member states to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could well be a turning point for Africa. While much of the continent remains economically deprived, Africa has now shown the world that its leaders can take decisive action to save lives and prevent suffering. If crippling debt imposed on African nations by better-off countries (who in many cases were former colonisers of the region) can be written off, this region has a real chance to develop over the coming decade.

14 comments on “How Africa has weathered the COVID-19 storm ”

  1. bill 1

    As this piece by Afua Hersh in the Guardian (Why are Africa's coronavirus successes being overlooked?) points out, Senegal has a population of 16 million and at the time of writing only 16 people had died. (That's 39 as of today according to google).

    The article also mentions the smart move of testing multiple samples at once instead of individually, meaning a population can (depending on sample size) be covered 10 times faster or 100 times faster than can be done with individual sample tests.

    Last I read, Kerala state in India also got right on top of things.

    As I commented a while back, "western" approaches have been dogged by ingrained racism – first it was "an Asian" thing (and so nothing to do with "us whiteys"), and Africa (what with it not being white and not “developed” and all) was assumed to be a continent of impending doom.

    Indi Samarajiva has a very good piece at Medium for anyone to read who might be tempted to deny that racist element 😉

  2. miravox 3

    Nice post. It's good to see the international picture – one that includes African nations.

    "[most] African nations acting responsibly and listening to WHO guidance."

    Adhering to the principles of epidemic control that are in the WHO guidance is the over-riding common factor in countries that have managed some control over this disease

    Listening is too passive a word for the response of many African States. Their experience of epidemics like Ebola helped develop the guidance. They could teach epidemic control to several countries in Europe and the US and Brazil and …

  3. Frank the Tank 4

    No nothing to do with the fact that Africa is by and large a hot weather continent with a youthful population…..

    So you are telling me countries like South Africa, Congo and Zimbabwe had better controls than continental Europe – that's a Tui billboard right there.

    • McFlock 4.1

      You sound like the jerks who say NZ did so well because we are a "small, sparsely populated island". I suspect you know fuckall about public health efforts in Africa over the last 20 years. I'm not expert, but a guinea-worm would probably know more than you.

      Not all of it is NGOs, by any means. The one that made me check my assumptions was when Nigeria had an ebola case in Lagos during the last epidemic, and shut that shit down pronto.

      You might be generalising public health capacity based upon historical issues with HIV/AIDS. Much of that has to do with cold war warzones and cultural norms spread by colonial missionaries. The places with functioning government were basically approaching it with Reagan "morality". A hard lesson learned, but learned well.

    • miravox 4.2

      As much to do with Africa's weather as New Zealand's response it to it's location on the planet. I'm sure you have a view. Also I didn't say continental Europe – I said Europe which includes the UK and on the continent see Sweden, Italy & Spain for example.

      I'd suggest than like New Zealand, African countries had a bit of time to prepare – time to see what was happeing in countries to the north. African countries has also substantially improved their epidemic preparedess over the last few years, while a viral epidemic like Covid- 19 was not really on the radar elsewhere.

      If you're prepared and have effective controls on movement, hygiene, and tracing measures you don't need so many fancy hospitals with a virus like this right?

      What's been happening on the ground


      What's been happening with preparing and mobilising

      "[Africa] is better prepared than ever before. Substantial progress has been made since the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak, with lessons learned from previous and ongoing outbreaks, followed by significant investments into surveillance and preparedness. Africa is now better prepared than ever before. Thus, African countries have been on heightened alert to detect and isolated any imported cases of COVID-19. There has been rapid response to the COVID-19 epidemic from Africa’s public health systems, well before any cases of COVID-19 had been reported from Africa."


  4. Frank the Tank 5

    Hit a nerve did I? I'm sure hospitals are awesome places to be in Lagos and that the government's inability to control lassa fever, yellow fever and monkey pox is all due to bad luck.

    Feel free to hurl insults if you are struggling to reply to my argument in a logical, reasoned and rational argument.

    p.s. Its usually a sign you are losing an argument

    [lprent: Actually using pwned style arguments is a sign to me that I may have an idiot troll to educate about their behaviour. Do not try to define the rules of site behaviour – that is solely the prerogative of the site moderators and myself. Basically commenters should refrain from trying to even imply that other commenters should change their behaviour. The most you can do is to try to highlight it to the mods (in itself a risky behaviour).

    And sonny, please read the policy before I start making judgements on your stupid dimwitted newbie behaviour. Consider what ‘robust debate’ actually means rather than a simpleton, Frank the Fuckwit, thinks our policies should be different…

    BTW: This is your warning. ]

    • McFlock 5.1

      Actually, hurling insults is usually a sign I am breathing.

      But back to the point, feel free to provide your analyses regarding mean local temperatures, age distributions, infection spread and case mortality rates (all compared between USA/UK/Europe and various African states) to support your thesis. Otherwise we'll just be here with you saying "temperature" and me saying "fuck-useless western leadership".

      And try to use the reply button, there's a dear.

      • Alice Tectonite 5.1.1

        Age structure of the population is certainly worth a look. Frank was correct in Africa having a younger population than Europe (pity about the way he raised it). Compare population pyramids for Africa and Europe: Europe has far more 60+ people than Africa (even more so when looking at Sub-Saharan Africa).

        In more developed countries, most COVID-19 deaths seem to be elderly people (see e.g. USA, Italy, England+Wales, Aus, NZ). Also seems to be the case in South Africa, where the population is generally older than average for Sub-Saharan Africa. Haven't had much luck finding COVID-19 deaths by age for rest of Sub-Saharan, but wonder if that's also the case there.

        Looking at the population age structure of Bill's Senegal example, can see that NZ has more 60+ people (by ~250k) and all our COVID-19 deaths are 60+ (& overwhelmingly 70+). IMO definitely worth taking into account when comparing countries like these.

        Also wonder if some of the comorbidities being seen in developed countries are to some extent the diseases of wealth, and less of a factor in less developed countries.

        Plus all the other things like leadership, epidemic experience, health system, …

        [Note – See https://www.populationpyramid.net/ for the other countries/regions mentioned – don't want to trip the spam trap by linking repeatedly.]

        • roblogic

          I wonder if there's a survivorship bias in the statistics too – Africans with weak immune systems were already dead from dengue fever and whatnot, before Covid came along.

        • McFlock

          I think the biggest factor, across the board, is for the nations that were lucky enough to get touched later by the pandemic than others, enabling them to see what works (cracking down early) and what does not (thoughts and prayers).

          Sure, the Senegal population pyramid might explain some of the case mortality rate, but a population of 16M with only a few thousand cases and double digit deaths needs more than a population pyramid and heat to explain it.

          Banning gatherings and cruise ships within two or three weeks of their first case might have helped. CF: most nations that are in the shit.

    • lprent 5.2

      Read my note on your comment above. Acknowledge it before I notice you again.

    • Frank The Tank 5.3

      Ban me if you want – your call. I don’t really care. Your loss if you can’t handle an alternative position and resort to name calling…… Not sure how having an opinion is trying to define rules or behaviour – whatever floats your boat bud

      • Incognito 5.3.1

        It never ceases to amaze me how effective this approach is. Inevitably, trolls respond to it by whining about the language, the name-calling, the swearing and, without exception, they never heed the point/warning, which always is (about) their behaviour. Robust debate is about counter-views and opposing opinions and these are almost (!) never the issue! But trolls don’t listen, they just troll.

        In other words, you completely missed/ignored the points raised by the Moderator.

        This leaves you with two options: 1) engage your brain and lift your game; 2) stop trolling here and go elsewhere, i.e. ban yourself. If you’re a stupid troll with a fragile ego, you’ll come up with a variant of option no. 2.

        BTW, learn to use the Reply button.

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