Is Africa possibly more prepared to handle the COVID-19 outbreak than initially thought?

By Judith Mondo

Analysis in brief: Despite Africa’s well-known vulnerability to infectious outbreaks, the continent has shown great resilience in handling the COVID-19 outbreak so far. Many African countries have responded relatively quickly to testing and containment measures, which have significantly slowed the spread of contagion and saved the continent some precious time to ramp up healthcare resources. A number of factors have contributed to the continent’s preparedness, including the experiences learnt in dealing with previous epidemics such as Cholera and Ebola.

The new coronavirus, which originated in China almost four months ago, currently constitutes one of the biggest threats to humanity, claiming thousands of lives and sickening over a million others worldwide. The virus has extended to more than 200 countries and territories around the globe, has infected over 2 million people and killed more than 140,000 others as of the April 17th, 2020. In Africa, the spread of the virus has been slow relative to the rest of the world. Compared to the United States (US) for example, where the number of COVID-19 cases has risen exponentially from around 35,000 in the second week of March to over 670,000 presently (Johns Hopkins University, 2020), Africa has reported over 16,200 positive cases during the same period (Africanews, 2020).

This has come as a surprise to many healthcare experts and practitioners considering that the continent is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world due to a number of factors, including its economic ties with China, the birthplace of the pandemic, and the poor state of health infrastructure and poverty in most African countries.

While it cannot be ruled out that a lot of cases may be going undiagnosed throughout Africa, it should be credited that the continent, especially the sub-Saharan region, seems to have taken early measures to slow down the spread of the virus by responding relatively faster to testing and containment measures, which have significantly slowed the spread of contagion. A number of factors are believed to have contributed to the region’s preparedness and response thus far, including the lessons learnt in handling previous epidemics such as Cholera and Ebola.

The spread of the COVID-19 in Africa has been slower compared to the rest of the world
Image courtesy: Johns Hopkins University (17 April 2020)

Response to previous epidemics is providing a foundation for resilience in many African countries

COVID-19 is not like any of the other pandemics that have emerged in the world in recent times, at least since the late 1960s. Although less deadly than other outbreaks, i.e. SARS, MERS and Ebola, the new coronavirus is by far more infectious and pervasive due to its airborne nature. However, countries that have experienced other viral outbreaks have been shown to be much more prepared to handle the new coronavirus outbreak, both in terms of sensitisation efforts and putting in place certain response and treatment measures necessary to curb large scale contamination. Countries in Central and West Africa, for example, are particularly experienced in handling infectious diseases after facing multiple Ebola and Cholera outbreaks.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for instance, a lot of the infrastructure for screening, isolation and treatment of severe infectious cases has been put in place since the Ebola outbreak. Molecular testing machines needed to diagnose the new coronavirus are also present as they have been used to test the Ebola virus. Added to this, previous education efforts used in prevention campaigns against Ebola, including the promotion of hygienic measures such as handwashing, are helping the country in its fight against the COVID-19. Similarly, in Ghana, exposure to several cholera outbreaks and successful prevention of Ebola have enhanced the country’s efforts to test and screen for the COVID-19 sooner and to sensitise the population to the current coronavirus outbreak.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, like many other African countries, is building on previous efforts from Ebola outbreaks to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus.
Image courtesy: WHO, DRC

While majority of these survivor countries lack advanced healthcare infrastructure and have significant shortages in the supply of respiratory support machines which are required to treat severe cases of COVID-19, it is hoped that lessons learnt from handling previous large-scale epidemics will continue to assist the continent in increasing prevention measures against the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lessons learnt from other hard hit countries are also shaping Africa’s strategy

In addition to the above, lessons learnt from other countries such as China and South Korea have been key in informing Africa’s quick response to the pandemic thus far. One key realisation among most African leaders was that early decisions and actions are pivotal in determining the course of the pandemic. From acquiring more testing kits and swiftly cutting down international and domestic travel, to closing schools and borders, limiting public gatherings and implementing early quarantine and isolation, many African countries have responded comparatively quickly to the global coronavirus pandemic. South Africa, for example, barred entry to all travellers from hard-hit countries in mid-March after reporting its first 100 cases and implemented mandatory 14-day quarantine and isolation for all national travellers, during which regular testing was conducted to identify sick and at-risk patients. The country, as well as many others on the continent, subsequently implemented country-wide lockdown measures to curb the spread of the pandemic. These measures have so far proven effective in slowing down the rate of infection in South Africa. It has also bought government time to put in place strategies in the healthcare sector to deal with the imminent increase in the number of cases due to more testing and the easing of restrictions. The hope in many African countries is that the social distancing guidelines put in place will continue to slow the spread of the virus and avoid overwhelming their fragile healthcare systems.

African governments also learnt from the World Health Organization (WHO) that large-scale testing is critical in fighting the new coronavirus. Based on this, many countries on the continent are now being equipped with laboratories that can test for the new coronavirus. The progress in making testing kits available across the continent has been optimising speedily with assistance from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the WHO and other regional bodies, as well as from participation of the private sector in developing these kits. Donors from Asia, Latin America and the US are also playing a lifesaving role by constantly supplying the continent with essential healthcare equipment required to boost its battle against the pandemic. The most recent donation of ventilators, thermometers and other medical protective and diagnostic kits by Chinese billionaire and co-founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, has particularly come in handy.

It should be noted however that the battle against COVID-19 in Africa is far from over. While all the measures implemented thus far have been instrumental in accelerating the continent’s response to this threat and slowing its spread, they have not spared African countries from the looming crisis that could result if the virus is not contained. The forecasted impacts of the COVID-19 on Africa are devastating and could cause serious setback to the continent’s efforts to eradicate poverty, inequality and underdevelopment, as expressed South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa.

A resident outside her home in Cape Town is being interviewed by a healthcare worker
Image courtesy: ScienceMag

What awaits Africa as the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic

Despite Africa’s progress in containing the COVID-19 to date, the virus has been spreading rapidly throughout the continent. Since the first case was reported in late February, the disease has spread to 52 out of the continent’s 54 countries in a space of weeks (Africanews, 2020). The concerns over the impact of a pandemic of this magnitude on Africa’s economic and health sustainability are unimaginable, particularly the ability of the continent’s ailing healthcare system to stymie a spike in critical cases of the disease.

In addition, as the global community races to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, African economies are under increased pressure to adopt the most efficient strategies to ensure their sustainability. Other than the need for enhanced pan-African cooperation to strengthen public health systems across the continent, African states need to create a conducive fiscal space to support continent-wide response efforts and prevent the rapid spread of the virus. This puts them under significant pressure to rally all available resources to safeguard the continent’s economic livelihood and maintain macroeconomic stability in the short-to-medium term. This is of particular importance because output losses are projected at between US$37 billion and USD$79 billion for 2020 as a result of the pandemic. It is still unclear at this point if Africa has really prevented the worst outcome by implementing strict containment measures.

One thing is however sure – the response to the current COVID-19 crisis will push many countries to invest in resilient economic and healthcare systems. It can therefore be argued that the conditions in many African countries will be considerably bolstered and may never endure the same tenuousness post the current coronavirus outbreak.

Key points

  • The delay in the spread of the COVID-19 has given African countries precious time to prepare. More countries in the region are now being equipped with laboratories that can test for the virus
  • Preparedness and response to previous epidemics is providing a foundation for resilience in many African nations. Countries in Central and West Africa are for example more experienced in handling viral outbreaks based on the skills developed in dealing with Cholera and Ebola outbreaks
  • Africa needs to enhance continent-wide cooperation to strengthen public health systems and create a conducive fiscal space to support COVID-19 response efforts. The continent is also under pressure to rally all available resources to safeguard its economic livelihood and maintain macroeconomic stability in the long term.
  • The response to the current COVID-19 crisis will push many countries to invest in resilient economic and healthcare systems.

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.