Coronavirus has infected over 600 000 people across over 200 countries and territories worldwide, although this number is likely an underestimate. Reporting on Sunday 29th March, 32 155 people have lost their lives to the disease. The African continent has the lowest number of cases globally; the WHO situation update on the 28th of March reported 2831 confirmed cases and 48 deaths. However, that number is rising fast – suggesting the continent just a few weeks behind Europe in the outbreak. Of the reported confirmed cases, 412 were recorded in the last 24 hours.
South Africa has the highest number of confirmed cases, at 1170, followed by Egpyt with 536. Most of the cases recorded are ‘imported’: individuals who have recently travelled from another area experiencing an outbreak. However, experts have cautioned about how easily the pandemic could spread. The high number of cases in the US state of Florida suggest that heat does not kill the virus, and transmission will be hard to prevent in crowded, poorly sanitized cities. Countries are starting to take more aggressive steps to combat the virus: South Africa recently announced a full ‘lockdown’, with its landlocked Kindom, Lesotho, the following suit two days later. Morocco and Kenya are blocking international visitors, closing schools and restaurants; while Ghana and Rwanda have also announced social distancing measures.
Africa’s population is uniquely vulnerable to this pandemic, although its conditions are different from those in Europe and Asia. Covid-19 is a viral pneumonia, and pneumonia is already a leading cause of death, killing around 400 000 African children every year. This strain, Covid-19, has been most fatal to the elderly, and Africa has a median age of 19.4, leaving a smaller proportion of the population ‘high-risk’. However, even a small outbreak could cripple health systems: an average low-income country in sub-Saharan Africa has 50 critical care beds, according to the chief executive of Save the Children, Kevin Watkins. An estimated 15% of coronavirus patients require hospitalization (although this data is from Europe, where the population is, on average, much older).
African health officials may benefit from the experience of handling epidemics: countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo only recently recovered from an Ebola outbreak. However, with Europe and the US battling their own outbreaks, African countries may receive less support (for example, the US military was deployed to help combat the 2014 Ebola outbreak). Now, with the majority of coronavirus cases arriving from Europe, WHO Africa is having to re-write its plans; experts predicted that the virus would arrive from China, not Europe, and its preparations focused on these predictions.
The IMF and World Bank recently announced a suspension of debt payments from developing countries, a position that will be re-assessed in mid-April. Africa is calling on the IMF, World Bank and European Central Bank to waive its $44billion of interest payments on public sector debt, to shore up immediate funds for healthcare systems. African Finance ministers estimate that $100 billion will be needed in a coordinated response to the virus, contended in an open letter to these major banks. This relief is critical: put succinctly by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, “If Covid-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all”.