Coronavirus Has Spared Africa For Now, But How Long Will That Last?

Why there are only 27 cases continent wide is anyone’s best guess

Since the outbreak of coronavirus, as of Friday (March 6) there have been more than 97,000 reported cases, 54,000 recoveries and more than 3,300 deaths with the disease reaching six of seven continents as health officials try to get a handle on the epidemic.

Africa has not been completely spared, but the number of cases on a continent of 1.2 billion people has been relatively low: only 27 reported cases and no deaths to date.

The World Health Organization reports 17 cases have been reported in Algeria. Senegal has four. Egypt has three, Nigeria, Tunisia and Morocco all have one case. South Africa reported its first case on Thursday.

It has left scientists puzzled as to why the disease is exploding in places like France, with 257 cases; Spain, with 149 cases and the United States with 179 cases, but so far has failed to take such a foothold in Africa, given the poor health care infrastructure of many of the continent’s countries and the quick spread of other diseases like malaria and ebola.

The medical journal, The Lancet last month published a report predicting that South Africa, Algeria and Egypt would each be the nations most likely to bring the disease onto the continent. It’s likely because of the frequency of travel from a number of foreign nationals from other parts of the world. However, these are the nations that actually have the health infrastructures best able to deal with the epidemic among Africa’s 54 countries.

China, which has logged the vast majority of cases at more than 80,000, is Africa’s main trading partner with a reported value of $208 billion which translates into an increase in travel between those two lands. In 2015, there were as many as 250,000 Chinese contractors in Africa.
But that was before COVID-19 became a household word (and possibly even before its current mutation.) It doesn’t necessarily mean that any one person bought it to the continent. There have been no reports of any Chinese travelers diagnosed with the disease in Africa. In Algeria, the evidence points to a Italian man as the source, according to Reuters. In that country, 148 people have died, making it the second highest death toll outside of China.

The distance in travel, however, really could be one of the factors, Dr. Greg Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, told

“In the areas that do have cases, these are places that have travels from other affected areas,” said Poland, who is also head of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. But he said there are other factors as well. “It’s also a potentially protective issue like all respiratory diseases to the extent you’re not in cold air and low humidity with people staying indoors in big groups, so you decrease the risk of person-to-person transmission.”

Given what happened with the spread of ebola in Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are legitimate fears about the continent’s ability to handle an outbreak of COVID-19 to the degree that other nations are experiencing.

Nations like Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, each of which have one case, have health care infrastructures that could potentially deal with the virus and isolate it before it spreads. But a nation like South Sudan or Eritrea, which has consistently experienced war over the years, may not.

“As it gets into countries with less infrastructure, those countries may have more risk,” said Poland. “How do you identify or quarantine people and what level of medical care could be provided; that's a real issue for that reason.”

Scientists are waiting to see if the virus strikes Africa more harshly, but there’s no telling if or when that will take place.

“It’s either not going to happen or there will be a lag period,” said Poland. “It’s been a relatively mild introduction into Africa. I think everybody’s holding their breath to see if that’s going to change.”

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