• Victor Mohan

Africa & COVID-19

The speed with which COVID-19 spread across the world meant that the continent of Africa received little time to prepare its fragile ecosystems to tackle the incoming disaster. While the continent's relatively limited connections with the rest of the world delayed the importation of COVID-19 for a while, a small set of imported cases in regional hubs set a blaze which eventually led to no less than 33,000 cases (as of 28 April) being recorded in the continent.

Graph showing COVID-19 cases in Africa
Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa over time

Granted, this figure might be dwarfed by figures being reported from the likes of New York city, but the African picture is different. Combined with associated implications such as food insecurity and an economic fallout, the potential for a viral disaster is much higher in this continent. After all, the continent has historically not performed well when faced with disease outbreaks. The 1918 Spanish flu wiped out 6% of South Africa's population (300,000+) within 6 weeks. More recently, the Ebola outbreak of 2014 led to 11,000+ deaths in the continent.

African health system status & potential risks

At face value, the predominantly young population (60-70% of Africans are under 30) of Africa is likely to de-risk an outbreak in the continent because global data suggest that COVID-related deaths are associated with advanced age. But the host of endemic diseases in the continent when combined with the fragile health systems means that Africa has an uncertain future with COVID-19.

Despite this, Africa is trying its best to prepare itself, John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control is reported to have said in an interview with Global Health Now. The continent had no labs which could process SARS-CoV-2 tests in January. Since then over 48 African countries have developed the capacity to conduct these tests. Much of this progress has been achieved by leveraging the massive loans and support given by development agencies including the WHO, World Bank and the Jack Ma foundation. In this regard, countries like Ethiopia have especially led the continent in proactively testing their populations.

But African countries are still left competing with the developed world to import other supplies like PPE and equipment like ventilators, which are already in short supply across much of the world. Given these shortages, its likely that SARS-CoV-2 might seed itself in vulnerable communities in the continent -- urban slums and rural villages. Further complicating things, potential interactions with the continent's other endemic diseases like TB, HIV and Malaria could worsen the picture. Help is unlikely to come like it did during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Unlike that outbreak, the US and Europe are equally affected by COVID-19 leaving them with limited capacity to lend a helping hand.

Given the global nature of this pandemic then, the only effective strategy is to continue work with global solidarity, as elusive as it may appear with the unfortunate budgetary suspensions and political mismanagements.

COVID-19 & food security in Africa

Most African countries are net importers of food, with the continent spending about $65 billion on food imports in 2017. While experts generally tend to indicate that the pandemic is unlikely to have a major impact on global food production, Africa's major suppliers, India, Vietnam and Cambodia have reduced or even banned rice exports to make sure their countries have enough food to cope with the pandemic.

African countries including Nigeria, are expected to currently have adequate reserves of food to support their populations. Despite this, continuing export restrictions are likely to precipitate a major and acute food shortage in the affected countries.

Many fear that supplies built up, won't last for long (Image: REUTERS/Afolabi Stunde)

Further complicating the picture, East Africa, earlier in the year, was subject to a plague of locusts which decimated crops thereby augmenting its reliance on food imports. According to Mital Shah, managing director of Kenya-based Sunrice, one of the East Africa's largest rice importers, if imports don't pick up, East Africa alone could face a shortfall of at least 50,000-60,000 tonnes by the end of April.

Its not just the limited global food trade that is putting Africa at an elevated risk of food insecurity. Early evidence from countries like Nigeria which are implementing lockdowns suggests that scarcity has driven up prices of the main staple food beyond the reach of some people. This, combined with broken supply chains precipitated by the lockdown means urgent government action is necessary domestically regardless of how the global food trade scenario plays out.

COVID-19 & African immigrants

Reports indicate that African people living in various parts of the world are also being discriminated against since the COVID-19 outbreak. In Gyangzhou, China, Africans have allegedly been barred from hotels, shops and restaurants.

Discrimination against Africans, it appears, is not limited to service denial. In conversation with Al-Jazeera, a 23-year old medical student alleged that he had been unfairly asked to undertake various tests and quarantine himself.

Given the close relationship China and African countries maintain, these developments are quite likely to be downplayed by leaders from both sides. But the images of Africans sleeping under bridges, families with children being evicted from their legally rented places of abode, as well as service denial to Africans are likely to be perceived as Chinese racism and betrayal of African solidarity in these difficult times.

As we had previously mentioned in an earlier post, the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the present scenario have left people looking for oversimplistic answers to questions. Turning to conspiracy theorists and unconfirmed reports, scapegoatism has become a favored response of many. At the heart of this discrimination of Africans, is the Chinese governments reluctance to acknowledge the racial component of Coronavirus containment and establish effective communications between leadership and communities.

Read more:

Is discrimination the new norm during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The US suspends funding to the WHO amidst a global pandemic.