Analysis: Fearing for Africa amid coronavirus

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 30 Apr 2020

Africa’s young population may prove resilient against the coronavirus, but malnutrition could be the nail in the continent’s coffin

Fearing for Africa amid coronavirus
Medical staff of International Medical Corps put on personal protective equipment at an isolation ward in Juba (photo: AFP)

The African continent, with a population of over 1.2 billion, has recorded more than 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and close to 1,500 deaths. The figures may seem less threatening when compared to those in Europe and the United States. But the fact is, the numbers may increase at lightning speed.

In South Africa, for example, coronavirus cases multiplied 20-fold in two weeks. The virus had hit 400 patients in late March in Algeria, and today the cases stand at more than 4,000.

Large numbers of doctors and healthcare policy leaders in Africa fear an outbreak on the scale of Europe. Africa, with its poor capabilities and deteriorating health services, will not be able to stand against this scenario.

Making matters worse in Africa is the fragile economic condition of the continent. Villagers live hand to mouth, feeding on their crops of grains, potatoes and vegetables. In many African capitals, 20 per cent of the populations live under the poverty line and the majority of workers are seasonal labourers in temporary jobs.

Without thinking twice, the poor of Africa would rather die of disease than of hunger. They will go to work to feed their families, coronavirus or not. And in the majority of the continent’s countries, governments will be able to provide only small amounts of subsidised foods, with the disbursement of free foods near impossible.

True, Uganda and Rwanda, with 79 and 191 coronavirus cases respectively and no fatalities thus far, are distributing free food in the poorest areas. But this is difficult to maintain, even if reports from South Africa saying that “gangs disburse free food in poor districts among immigrants from neighbouring countries” are true.

A few weeks into adopting these policies, state budgets, already suffering from great deficits, are being brought to the ground.

Many African countries announced a curfew, such as Egypt, a complete lockdown, such as South Africa, a partial lockdown, such as Lagos, the economic and cultural capital of Nigeria or a travel ban between regions, such as Sudan.

In a world where influential countries are mobilising to source scarce medical equipment, Africa is left with almost nothing. Africa has five intensive care beds for every million citizens, while there are 3,500 such beds for every million people in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The condition is much worse when it comes to ventilators. South Sudan, the latest African country to gain independence, has a population of 14 million people and four ventilators.

Until Monday, Sudan had registered 237 confirmed coronavirus cases and 21 deaths. Sudan suffers from a deteriorating economy that led to the eruption of a revolution that brought down the longest serving president in Africa, Omar Al-Bashir. Since he was toppled, Sudan’s condition has not improved in the slightest.

Other African countries are suffering from collapsing infrastructure, where it is difficult to make available soap and water or practise self-isolation in overcrowded houses.

There is still hope for Africa, however. The majority of the continent is young, unlike in Europe where a quarter of the population is over 65 years of age. In Africa, as well, chronic diseases are not as widespread as in the Middle East and Asia.

But malnutrition could be the nail in the coffin for Africa, making coronavirus more dangerous for Africa than in other parts of the world. Still, the international scientific community has not conducted enough research to determine the effect of coronavirus on people suffering from malnutrition.

Moreover, due to poverty and collapsing infrastructure, commuting between regions in African countries remains limited, and international travel is recorded at far less rates than in any other part of the world.

Africa’s point of strength, nevertheless, is its experience in facing pandemics such as Ebola and HIV/AIDS. In these two experiences, since the 1980s until today, African communities proved their strength in overcoming many hurdles.

In both instances, countries of West Africa, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, and Central Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, didn’t practise self-isolation or enforce a lockdown. Combating both pandemics was done comprehensively by communities, with local leaderships taking the lead in the fight instead of governments.

In Liberia, it was local leaders that stood at the forefront of awareness campaigns, going door to door, organising people’s visits to markets, isolating infected patients and arranging the delivery of basic needs to those unable to afford them.

Ebola didn’t bring life to a halt in Congo and the pandemic is waning in the republic.

In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak, the Liberian government ordered the army to lock down the West Point district in the capital Monrovia. The public defied the lockdown, rendering it useless. Since then the Liberian government has counted on local leaderships. At that time, Sierra Leone released the slogan “General health by consent.”

However, the role of governments in building field hospitals and supporting the healthcare sector can’t be ignored.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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