Africa could become the next epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, warned the World Health Organization (WHO). UN officials also say it is likely that the pandemic will kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and plunge nearly 30 million Africans into poverty.
This week Africa saw a sharp increase in cases of coronavirus. There have been nearly 1,082 deaths and almost 21,262 infections on the continent, rates so far much lower than in parts of Europe and the United States.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – which has warned that 300,000 people could die – has called for a $100 billion safety net for the continent, as well as the cancellation of countries’ external debt.
According to WHO, the virus appears to be spreading from African capitals and stressed that the continent is lacking respirators to cope with the pandemic. More than a third of the African population does not have access to an adequate water supply, and almost 60% of city dwellers live in overcrowded slums – conditions favorable to the spread of the virus.
How dangerous is the situation in Africa?
There are nearly 21,262 confirmed cases in Africa and at least 1,082 confirmed deaths – as of April 19 – across the continent, which has a population of approximately 1.3 billion. North Africa is the most affected region. Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco each register more than 2,000 cases and at least 100 deaths. Algeria has the highest number of deaths, with 367.
South Africa also has more than 2,000 cases, with 52 deaths. In contrast, the most populous country on the continent, Nigeria, has nearly 542 cases, including 19 confirmed deaths out of a population of some 200 million inhabitants.
Fewer cases compared to Europe and the United States
According to BBC Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Director of WHO Africa, told Tulip Mazumdar, BBC health correspondent, that international travel plays a decisive role. “If you look at the proportion of people traveling, Africa has fewer people going abroad,” she said. But now that the virus is in Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti says his organization is acting on the premise that it will spread as quickly as elsewhere.
WHO has seen the virus spread from large cities to the “hinterland” in South Africa, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, and Ghana, said Dr. Moeti. There are about 15 African countries where the virus has not yet spread, so if these countries adopt strong social distancing measures, they could contain the virus.
Since the first case was reported in Africa, most of the infected have been concentrated in urban areas where sanitation is available, and access to care is more straightforward. The same cannot be said of rural areas where hospitals or health centers are rare or non-existent. The fragility of the continent’s health infrastructure means that it will be doubly strained by an increasing number of new Covid-19 infections.
If the experiences of countries like Italy, Spain, France, and the United States are to be believed, Africa will find it challenging to manage an increasing number of people suffering from the virus, especially those who need intensive care. Health workers in different parts of the continent have complained about the lack of adequate personal protective equipment.
Covid-19 is a highly contagious disease, and health workers are more at risk of infection. Tunisia already has 68 infected health workers, Liberia has 18 and Niger has 32.
If the virus spreads further in Africa
If the Covid-19 succeeds in establishing itself on the continent, the consequences could be much more devastating than what we have seen in Europe and the United States, affirms the health correspondent of the BBC. According to the WHO, there are only about five intensive care beds available for one million people in most African countries, compared to about 4,000 beds for one million people in Europe.
Dr. Moeti said that WHO focused on prevention rather than treatment of the virus, as many African countries cannot treat many patients with coronavirus. “We want to minimize the proportion of people who reach the point of requiring intensive care in a specialized care unit because we know that this type of facility is by no means accessible in the majority of African countries,” she said. And the lack of respirators is “one of the biggest challenges” that African countries face.