As COVID-19 ravages the world, life is normal in most of Africa
To many residents across Africa, American fears of catching the coronavirus in Africa seem particularly ridiculous, considering that the US has the world’s highest death toll from the pandemic, while African nations have one of the lowest.
Almost every one of the continent’s 54 countries, while home to some of the least developed health-care systems in the world, has registered fewer deaths from the virus in the last nine months than the United States now suffers each day.
The top headline last week on a popular Kenyan news website could barely contain its sarcasm: "America, with 270K deaths, 13M infections, warns citizens not to travel to Kenya over high risk of COVID-19."
While testing has been comparatively limited, the continent appears to have bucked the doomsday predictions of global health experts. The severe outbreaks seen elsewhere, which have led to crowded hospitals and a spike in deaths, have emerged in only a handful of African countries.
Surveys by the World Health Organization have found negligible excess mortality rates in most African countries, reducing suspicion that many covid-19 deaths are going uncounted.
Data is scant, as are peer-reviewed studies. But even as more research emerges, public health experts caution that the explanation for why Africa’s caseload has remained low will be complicated.
“It is highly unlikely that there is a single, definitive answer as to why this is the case,” said Ngoy Nsenga, a Congolese epidemiologist and the WHO’s program manager for emergency response in Africa.
“Youthful populations, warmer climates, less time indoors, less traveling, less obesity and diabetes, immunities derived from other diseases — even other coronaviruses — are all playing a part, we think. But what distinguishes Africa from other places like Brazil that might share those factors, but were still hard-hit, are our human interventions.”
Almost all African countries closed their international borders early in the pandemic. Many imposed localized lockdowns, curfews and bans on social activities even before notching their first cases.
Experts agreed that while adherence to other mandates such as mask-wearing and social distancing may have been lax, their early implementation along with more heavy-handed measures were effective at flattening the curve of infections.
Among African nations, Senegal has garnered widespread praise for its quick response, which included sealing its border, rolling out four-hour tests while Americans waited days for results, and imposing a curfew until infections slowed.
Preliminary analyses by the WHO indicate that Africans may be twice as likely to contract the coronavirus without experiencing any illness, and that more than 80 percent of cases on the continent have been asymptomatic — a far higher percentage than elsewhere in the world.
“We have been dealing with epidemics and outbreaks for decades,” said Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in the southwestern Nigerian town of Ede. “People learn how to deal with diseases better than countries that have not experienced that kind of thing.”