When COVID-19 first began spreading around the world, there was near-universal concern among experts that countries in Africa could be hit particularly hard, with high rates of transmission that could quickly overwhelm the poor health care systems. But nine months into the pandemic, which has affected over 32 million people and caused more than 990,000 deaths around the world, most African countries have fared significantly better than other parts of the world.
While the U.S. reached 200,000 COVID-19 deaths and the world approaches 1 million, Africa’s surge has been leveling off. Its 1.6 million confirmed cases are far from the horrors predicted. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 33,000 deaths are confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.
“Africa is doing a lot of things right the rest of the world isn’t,” said Gayle Smith, a former administrator with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Several news reports and opinions assumed that a large number of Africans ‘would just die.’
While so much about the virus and how it operates remains unclear, sub-Saharan Africa so far has dodged a deadly wave of coronavirus cases. Many factors have contributed to this. A number of West African nations already had a pandemic response infrastructure in place from the Ebola outbreak of late 2013 to 2016.
Part of that success also owes to aggressive measures enacted early in the pandemic to restrict people’s movements and slow transmissions within communities, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa.
“Governments took early, quite drastic action through the lockdowns at great cost to their economies,” Moeti said in a press briefing. “This has bought us some time.” However, upticks are already being observed in South Africa, Algeria, Mauritania and Ghana, likely as a direct result of the reopening of cities in May and June.
The WHO has stressed that the next few months — in Africa but also elsewhere — will be very important to stave off an anticipated second wave of infections.