The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called on the rest of Africa to take heed of the rapidly growing outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa and strengthen internal disease surveillance and pandemic prevention efforts. As of 23 July, South Africa has recorded 394 948 coronavirus cases – accounting for over half of all confirmed Covid-19 cases in Africa (751 391).
The severity of the outbreak in South Africa is of particular concern as the country has the most advanced medical infrastructure and resources in continental Africa. Similarly, due to its closer ties with Europe and Asia, and larger tourism industry, experts estimate that the coronavirus arrived and began spreading in South Africa much earlier than the rest of the continent. Some believe the virus was already present in the country at least a month before the first confirmed cases were reported on 5 March. This has given rise to concerns that South Africa’s experience portends worse outbreaks elsewhere on the continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Due to the viral nature of Covid-19, infections can spread rapidly without detection and be difficult to contain once underway. These fears have been further motivated by increasing infection rates in states neighbouring South Africa such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, as well as in Kenya where cases have increased by 31.29% since 14 July.
Efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus are also hampered by longstanding challenges across the continent. Fundamental shortcomings in health infrastructure and limited health laboratories make identifying and containing outbreaks of the virus difficult. In fact, in February 2020, Senegal and South Africa were the only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa that had labs with the technical capacity to process coronavirus tests. While this has been rectified with a plurality of African states developing some form of capacity to test for the virus, the capacity to process a significant number of daily tests remains limited.
In addition, countries have ongoing conflict areas where the central government does not control the entire territory such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR), compounding the difficulty of implementing effective countrywide prevention methods. In fact, there is a growing concern that there is a growing undetected and untreated outbreak of the coronavirus in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado where larges swathes of territory are controlled by Islamist insurgents. This is particularly concerning as the insurgent-controlled territory borders Tanzania whose president John Magufuli has politicised the outbreak, prevented the release of reliable data, and declared the country “free of Covid-19” in June despite most experts believing that the virus is continuing to spread in the country.
Due to the aforementioned capacity constraints, most African states acknowledged that the most effective way to address the coronavirus pandemic is through preventative measures. Accordingly, most countries have imposed some form of lockdown and travel restrictions. At present, about 40 African states have implemented full border closures in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. This has disrupted transcontinental trade and movement, especially that of migrant workers on the continent.
These measures have resulted in severe economic impacts across the continent. Arguably the worst affected region is Southern Africa which is economically dominated by South Africa. That country’s anticipated 7.2% economic contraction is expected to spread to neighbouring states, if not throughout the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
The negative economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are already being felt across the continent, driven by the global recession which will result in a drop in demand for Africa’s natural resources as well as the near suspension of the global tourism industry. Further, as wealthier states address domestic economic challenges caused by the global recession, aid financing is expected to contract, which will have a major impact on African countries dependent on foreign aid. This has all occurred during a period of record levels of sovereign debt across Africa which will limit governments’ ability to borrow funds to raise capital for economic stimulus plans. This will result in either a further slowing of economic growth or countries turning to states such as China for low-interest loans – which often require national assets or state-owned companies as security.
However, it does appear that African countries have some advantages in combatting the coronavirus. The disease appears to spread less rapidly in warmer sunnier climates and in the outdoors. The weather across much of the continent is thus better suited to limit the spread of the virus. In addition, compared to Europe, which was hard-hit by the coronavirus, Africa has a much younger population. Covid-19 has proven to be significantly less deadly in those under 60 and this is believed to among the reasons for the comparatively low death toll on the continent. Even South Africa has only recorded 5 368 coronavirus deaths officially, giving it a mortality rate of 1.41% compared to the global average of 4.10%.
Despite these potential advantages African states are still yet to reach the peaks of their respective coronavirus outbreaks. In the short-term, the epicentres of the outbreak on the continent are expected to continue to be South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria which have 394 948, 89 745, and 38 344 confirmed coronavirus cases respectively as of 23 July. However, over the medium-to-long term, the outbreaks in Ghana, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe are all expected to become matters of concern.
Given the current slow spread of the coronavirus in most African states, hope remains that the international effort to develop, manufacture, and distribute a vaccine will be successful before the majority of these outbreaks reach a critical mass and risk overwhelming national healthcare systems and shattering economies.