In Depth

How coronavirus could devastate Africa

A growing number of infections threaten under-resourced continent

As the coronavirus pandemic threatens to overwhelm the health services of even the world’s richest nations, reports of a growing number of infections in Africa has triggered fears of a new global epicentre. 

The continent, where some of the world’s least developed countries have poor healthcare infrastructure, has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic. But as of this week, 2,400 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed across Africa.

South Africa, which accounts for a third of the infections reported on the continent so far, is already taking steps to combat the outbreak by implementing a strict 21-day lockdown from today. Although the country has a relatively youthful population, millions remain “vulnerable because of HIV or malnutrition”, The Guardian reports.

So what might happen to Africa if Covid-19 takes hold across the continent?

What is the current situation in Africa?

While reported case numbers in Africa have been relatively low, cases have now been identified in dozens of countries, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures.

CNN says that “as the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerates around the world, sub-Saharan Africa has largely been spared – until now”.

As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,400 confirmed cases of coronavirus across the continent, and over 60 reported deaths.

Last week, before cases began to rise, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Africa “should wake up, my continent should wake up”.

Will they be able to handle a full-blown outbreak?

The BBC reports that health experts have warned that “strained public health systems in Africa could become quickly overwhelmed if the virus takes hold, especially in overcrowded urban areas”.

And The Washington Post says: “Warning of ‘critical gaps in readiness’, the WHO has assured the African Union that it will do its part.

“It has already ramped up monitoring and evaluation on the continent, but that’s only a first step.” 

The paper adds: “The WHO reports that only eight countries on the continent are prepared to deal with a major outbreak.”

However, experts believe that lessons learnt from the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2016 – which killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa – have improved the resilience of African healthcare systems and their capacity to test and successfully impose quarantine.

Reuters says that after Ebola swept through the region, “countries like Senegal trained community workers to proactively check for symptoms and share health information in places where people lack access to the internet or government services” – a tactic that could be used to try to contain coronavirus.

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But CNN says that Ebola should remind authorities to make more concerted efforts to protect healthcare workers.

“Unfortunately, we saw too many cases of heroic doctors, nurses and others become infected with Ebola from the patients whose lives they were trying to save,” the broadcaster says. Healthcare workers were “21 to 32 times more likely to contract Ebola than the general population” during the outbreak, it adds.

“With this novel coronavirus, health care workers will face similar risks at work, and will likely be required in many cases to continue treating patients even without the most rudimentary protective measures.”

What would this mean for the rest of the world?

Economically, the impact of a full-blown outbreak in Africa would be devastating. 

“This is going to deal a very severe blow to growth,” said Vera Songwe, secretary-general of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. “When you look at the economics, I think that is where the big story is for Africa. We are being severely affected.”

EurActiv adds that oil and commodities exporters, who have already “seen oil prices tumble to around $30 per barrel and copper prices plummet”, will be “particularly badly hit”. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) predicts that Nigeria – the continent’s strongest economy – could suffer a $19bn hit, largely from lost oil revenues.

The Washington Post says that while the threat of coronavirus to Africa is grave, the “stakes are also high for the world”, as “if the coronavirus isn’t contained there, Africa could be the source of future outbreaks, and any hope that this pandemic will be eradicated anytime soon will likely fade”.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agrees, writing in the Financial Times on Wednesday: “Advanced economies are unveiling unprecedented economic stimulus packages. African countries, by contrast, lack the wherewithal to make similarly meaningful interventions.

“If the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world.”

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