Perplexing as it may be, as per a WHO report, Africa, with 17 percent of the world's population, has merely 2.9 percent of worldwide active cases and 1.2 percent of deaths reported worldwide[i]. As on 22nd July 2020, while the global infection rate exceeds 14 million cases, the African continent records 749,492 cases with 409,568 recoveries and 15,726 deaths[ii]. In an interview, philanthropist Melinda Gates had predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic will have the worst impact on Africa and anticipated dead bodies lying on African countries if serious measures were not taken to mitigate the issue[iii]. However, five months of the Coronavirus outbreak in Africa does not corroborate, such dire predictions. As of date, the continent is among the least-affected regions globally in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases. This paper is an attempt to understand the reasons behind the low transmission and spread of the COVID-19 on the continent. It highlights the challenges that the continent faces ahead and the measures needed to meet them.
Assessing Reasons for Low Spread of COVID-19 Cases in Africa
There are several reasons to cite why the spread of COVID-19 has been slow on the continent as compared to other continents[iv]. It is believed that Africa was better prepared because it has hosted a series of serious pandemics earlier too. Since the very first week of the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) supported the African governments in providing assistance in the form of testing kits to countries, assisted in training health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities which helped in the low spread and low rate of transmission of the virus on the African continent[v]. Another reason for the low spread could be the temperature screening that was already taking place at several airports in Africa on account of the Ebola and yellow fever epidemic which contributed in identifying COVID- 19 cases. For example, Ethiopia was among the first nations to act swiftly with screening people at the airport and across the country. It began screening at the Addis Ababa airport in the month of January itself, because of which, till date it remains one of the least affected countries from the Covid-19 pandemic in east Africa[vi].
Besides, the African Governments in general were quick to react in time following detection of early cases which slowed the spread of the virus. They quickly imposed lockdown, curfew and closed borders. Public health measures were put in place and crowded places were closed to reduce exposure of human beings. The poor transport networks and low levels of economic integration of the African nations also made the continent less susceptible and vulnerable. Experts state that with less travel history and low population density, Africa is less likely to see massive spread of the disease[vii]. Moreover, the African Union too seems to have responded efficiently to fight against COVID-19 pandemic. The African Union acted swiftly to procure materials for testing, control and to provide crisis management information through social welfare packages. It further monitored local movement and restrictions imposed on international travel. The African Union also provided technical assistance to its member states and played a significant role in mobilising support on their behalf with international partners. It was the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) that became the vital face of the AU during this pandemic. In order to build capacities of African government and public health agencies to fight COVID-19, the African CDC has worked efficiently with the WHO in coordination of test kits, medical masks, medicines, protective suits and shields which came as donations from various countries and organisations to African nation[viii].
Several other quick initiatives were adopted by many African countries in the early stage of the crisis. Besides countries going into lockdown, a state of emergency was declared in a timely fashion in many African countries. South Africa, which is affected the most by coronavirus along with Zimbabwe, had gone for strict lockdown and had completely banned entry of nationals from China, Iran, Italy, Spain, the UK and the USA. Ghana and Kenya have also banned nationals from these countries and introduced self-isolation for people arriving in the country[ix]. Sudan, except for the flights carrying humanitarian aid and essentials, closed its airspace. Djibouti and Morocco also cancelled all international flights. Tanzania, along with the suspension of international flights, has also officially banned handshakes and hugs. In countries like Libya and Mozambique, meetings of 300 people or more have been suspended. Religious institutions have been temporarily closed in many countries in order to avoid mass gathering[x].
To fight COVID-19, initiatives revolving around efficiency in designing, upgrading technology solutions by creating apps, and developing digital tools to avail essential health services were undertaken. For example, in Rwanda, anti-epidemic robots started monitoring patients by delivering food and medication, while free e-consultation triage tools helped the Nigerians to self-assess by analysing their symptoms[xi]. In South Africa, the government started using WhatsApp chat service where common queries of every individual could be answered about COVID-19[xii]. Uganda created an app to promote social distancing, by facilitating home delivery of daily essentials. In many east African countries, mobile money ‘M-Pesa’ is being used where the government has urged people to shift to cashless transactions[xiii]. While many people see technology as an efficient way to stay at home, not everyone is able to access this facility considering the poverty and illiteracy that prevails on the continent. More than half of the population live in rural areas, which may not even have access to a radio. The role, responsibility and function of the government hence become vital in creating awareness. The African Union with the help of WHO, is making efforts to reach the far corners of the continent in creating awareness on the continent.
Challenges Ahead and Response of External Actors
The transmission of COVID 19 infection has been comparatively less in Africa as compared to other continents. There are, however, reports that the Covid-19 cases might be gradually increasing in Africa. The highest numbers of cases reported are in South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Ghana and Cameroon. The pandemic has brought the constraints of fragile health care systems, shortage of health professionals, and financial resource limitations, to the fore in most African countries. Vulnerabilities in the health sector also exist on account of disruptions that the Covid-19 pandemic can cause to existing health issues related to malaria, HIV AIDS and tuberculosis . Such disruptions were witnessed during the Ebola crisis as well. Several international organisations and countries are trying to extend immediate financial and medical assistance to fight the COVID-19 outbreak in Africa. Recently, the ‘WHO has collaborated with the African Centres for Disease Control, the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health England, and is working with national incident management systems which have the role of managing how the disease is monitored in terms of data and responses to the outbreak’ [xiv]. Some of the other recent noteworthy developments related to external actors in Africa and the fight against Covid-19 on the continent are as follows:
The relationship between India and Africa is rooted in shared values and principles mirrored in close bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The Coronavirus pandemic recently has augmented India's image as a capable international partner. In this time of global crises, India’s proactive approach to reach out to the African continent has been appreciated by many African nations. The challenges posed by the pandemic have made the India-Africa relationship even stronger[xv]. India’s contribution has been notable as the country was first to extend medical assistance to Africa to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. This medical diplomacy is built on historical goodwill shared between India and Africa. Till date, India is supporting Africa by its telemedicine support. Top Indian Institutions are partnering with local African institutions to engage and train health care workers of Africa. In addition, India has also reached out to the Indian Diaspora in Africa by maintaining close contact with the community. They are constantly ensuring all possible help within the limitations posed by the pandemic.
China is Africa’s largest trading partner and was quick in extending support to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic by dispatching medical protective equipment, face masks, testing kits, medicines and ventilators to several countries of Africa. Chinese embassies are assisting in providing humanitarian assistance and public goods in the African continent till today. President Xi Jinping, during the “Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19,” mentioned that as the COVID-19 crisis has pushed many African nations into debt, China is set to exempt certain African countries from repaying zero-interest rate loans due by the end of 2020[xvi]. This has come as a relief for many African nations which were struggling to pay loans to China during this crisis. A few days ago, Chinese government and the civil organisations have also provided several batches of anti-COVID-19 aids to South Sudan[xvii].
Recently, the World bank launched ‘Feed Africa Response’ to make provisions for flexibility and sustainability in food security systems of Africa as the continent is facing a food crisis on the continent[xviii]. According to the WB, “this initiative will also help the farmers cope with coronavirus related disruptions to the agricultural value chain”. In Liberia, the World Bank has recently approved $10.5 million funding support in order to mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus on the country's food security and livelihood[xix]. On June 17, the World Bank also provided $400 million to the health sector of Egypt as the country is severely hit by the pandemic. To cope with the pandemic, Democratic Republic of Congo has extended its support in two projects, i) provided $800 million in universalization of the primary education system, ii) sanctioned loans for maternity and childcare programs in the country[xx].
On 9th June, the African Development Bank Group approved a $9million grant to Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad to build capacity to curb and stop the spread of the COVID-19 (COE-EDP, 2020). Few days ago, the European Union and Egypt, both extended medical aid in Somalia to support the coronavirus response in Africa[xxi]. The New Development Bank (NDB) established by the BRICS group has also played a significant role. It has sanctioned a loan of one billion dollars to South Africa in order to aid it amid the coronavirus pandemic [xxii]. These are some of the latest developments to show how Africa is being supported by external actors to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa’s quick response to tackle the pandemic has spared the continent from the scale of destruction that Covid-19 has unleashed on other continents. Fortunately, some of the dire predictions made in respect of the possible impact of the pandemic on the continent have been proven wrong as of date. Africa’s mortality rate continues to remain low compared to other countries due to reasons discussed in the paper. Large numbers of those tested positive with COVID-19 have also recovered across the continent which confirms that there prevails low death rate and high recovery rate on the continent. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the lessons learnt from previous epidemics are coming to good use in Africa. Moreover, the coming together of international organisations and assistance extended by several countries has led to solid proactive measures which have accelerated preparedness and comprehensive control measures on the continent. However, the upcoming months present a challenge to the present situation as reports come in of increasing number of COVID 19 cases in Africa.The efforts of the state and non-state actors and agencies will be crucial in the upcoming times to ensure the initial success can be sustained across the continent.
*Dr. Neha Sinha, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] WHO Report 2020 https://reliefweb.int/report/south-africa/covid-19-situation-update-who-african-region-external-situation-report-18-01 Accesed on 5th July 2020
[ii] African Union 2020, ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)’, 22 July 2020.https://africacdc.org/covid-19 (Accessed on 23rd July 2020)
[iii] Caleb Okereke Kelsey Nielsen, The problem with predicting coronavirus apocalypse in Africa, Aljazeera,7thMay2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/problem-predicting-coronavirus-apocalypse-africa-200505103847843.html (Accessed on 15th May 2020)
[iv]AnadoluAgency2020https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/covid-19-cases-low-in-africa-due-to-strong-leadership/1856474 Accessed on 29May 2020.
[v] WHO Report 2020, ‘WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 25May2020’.https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---25-may-2020 Accessed on 1st May 2020.
[vi]Getachew2020,AnadoluAgencyhttps://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/ethiopia-begins-airport-screening-against-china-virus/1712852 Accessed on 1st June 2020
[vii] African Union 2020, ‘Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)’, 22 July 2020.https://africacdc.org/covid-19 (Accessed on 23rd July 2020)
[viii] John Nkengasong, 2020 ‘ How COVID-19 is impacting the African Union's operations’, Public health International Organisation 6 April 2020.https://www.africaportal.org/features/covid-19-and-african-union/
[ix] United World International 2020: Coronavirus in Africa: COVID-19 leading the continent to disaster. https://uwidata.com/9294-coronavirus-in-africa-covid-19-leading-the-continent-to-disaster/ Accessed on 10th April 2020.
[xi] UNDP Africa 2020, ‘UNDP and Government of Rwanda Deploy Smart Anti- Epidemic Robots to Fight Against COVID-19’, 21 May 2020 https://www.africa.undp.org/content/rba/en/home/presscenter/articles/2020/undp-deploys-smart-anti--epidemic-robots-to-fight-against-covid-.html
[xii] Harrisberg KIm 2020: World Economic Forum, ‘Here's how Africans are using tech to combat the coronaviruspandemic’https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/africa-technology-coronavirus-covid19-innovation-mobile-tech-pandemic?fbclid=IwAR0O9waJEZt4TsZ6tlOgfDQSjdhiCW_s37qoZKiAfwI1ica-8n8lj5o4FE0 Assessed on 11th April 2020.
[xiv] WHOReport 2020, ‘WHO urges strong COVID-19 safety measures as African countries to resumeairtravel’https://www.afro.who.int/news/who-urges-strong-covid-19-safety-measures-african-countries-resume-air-travel Accessed on 6th July 2020
[xv] The Pioneer, ‘57th Anniversary of Africa Day: India Unites with Africa to Fight Corona’. 25th may 2020 https://www.dailypioneer.com/2020/state-editions/57th-anniversary-of-africa-day---india-unites-with-africa-to-fight-corona.html
[xvi] Council on Foreign Relations 2020, As Africa Faces COVID-19, Chinese Debt Relief is a Welcome Development. June 30, 2020 https://www.cfr.org/blog/africa-faces-covid-19-chinese-debt-relief-welcome-development
[xvii] Jerry Omondi 2020, CGTN https://africa.cgtn.com/2020/07/03/china-donates-medical-supplies-to-south-sudan/ Accessed on 7th July 2020
[xviii] COE-EDP 2020, ‘How donor funds pouring in to tackle COVID-19 but sans of holistic and integrated approach’ 27th June 2020 https://www.devdiscourse.com/article/health/1106150-wont-give-patanjali-permission-to-sell-anti-corona-drug-in-rajasthan-raghu-sharma
[xxii] Baibhawi 2020, ‘New Development Bank Approves $1 Billion COVID-19 Loan To South Africa’ 20th June 2020 https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/rest-of-the-world-news/new-development-bank-approves-1-dollars-billion-covid-19-loan-to-south-africa.html Accessed on 6th July 2020.