Lessons from Africa… as COVID-19 outcome in Africa baffles science


By Catherine Murombedzi

SCIENCE had predicted dead bodies to litter the African streets, overwhelming the health delivery systems and leaving the Cradle of Mankind weeping. 

The prediction had been based on ‘evidence’.

Africa has ‘second-class’ health delivery systems, has experienced massive brain drain and poor medication stocks, poorly equipped hospitals and a myriad of other challenges.

African trained health personnel are world class pundits, that’s not queried, the first world pitted the above challenges to be the precursor to COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the continent.

However, this did not come to pass, with the global infections at 33,4 million, recoveries at 23,2 million with a million deceased.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), keeps track of the global pandemic, giving apt advice. 

It has been baffled by the outcomes of COVID-19 in Africa. 

Studies are underway to have evidence based understanding.

With Zimbabwe having been spared the worst, WHO country representative, Dr Alex Gasasira said it is too early to celebrate.

“Many factors have been identified that maybe contributing to this situation in Africa, but it is too early to celebrate,” said Dr Alex Gasasira.

In a media briefing from Geneva on Thursday, last week, WHO had experts in the house.

“Africans may be twice as likely to experience COVID-19 without any illness, compared with people in the rest of the world, according to preliminary analysis by the African branch of the World Health Organisation.

“The results from several blood-sample studies in Africa could help to explain the low death rate that has confounded the early predictions of devastation on the continent.”


The preliminary analysis found more than 80 percent of Africans, who were infected with the virus were asymptomatic, based on testing in several African countries. This compares with an estimated 40 to 50 percent, who were asymptomatic in the rest of the world.

“This is reinforced by the fact that we have not seen health systems overwhelmed by very large numbers of cases, and we’re also not seeing evidence of excess mortality due to COVID-19,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa.

Africa, US, Europe comparison

Africa, with a population of 1,2 billion, has recorded about 1,4 million cases and fewer than 35 000 deaths from the virus  far lower, than other regions of the globe. The US, with slightly more than a quarter of Africa’s population, has recorded 7,1 million cases and more than 207 000 deaths.

This shows Africa doing better in recording new infections.

Lower testing rates

The difference could be argued Africa’s testing rate is much lower. 

Only one percent of the population has been tested for the virus. However, this fails to explain all of the variations.

“The missed COVID-19 cases are largely because they are asymptomatic,” the WHO Africa branch said.

“In addition, there is no evidence of miscalculation of death figures, which are more difficult to miss statistically.”

The fatality rate in Africa is 2,4 percent so far, significantly lower than the rate in most European and North American countries.

Unrecorded deaths

Even when estimates include thousands of excess deaths, likely to be caused by COVID-19 but not officially recorded as such, the death rate in Africa has been lower than many experts had predicted. The pandemic is now off peak.

The number of new African cases has been dropping for the past two months.

Pieces to the puzzle

Experts cited several possible factors to explain the lower rates of death and illness in Africa, emphasising that more study is required. These were stated partly as the factors, with further study being taken.

● Africa’s youthful population. Only about three percent of Africans are over the age of 65, the age group in which illness and death from the COVID-19 are most common.

● More than 90 percent of African cases are among people under the age of 60, who are better able to shrug off the virus.

“Majority of Africans live in rural settings, which by nature are distanced hence social distancing is maintained,” Sam Agatre Okuonzi, a Ugandan health researcher and hospital administrator, agreed that Africa’s risk may have been reduced by its larger rural population.

● Death rates have been higher in Algeria and South Africa, where a larger percentage of the population is over the age of 65, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, director, WHO Africa region noted.

Rural settings

As Zimbabweans, the majority of African people reside in the rural areas.

The environment and air is clean.

“The virus doesn’t transmit very well outdoors. Africa has a significant population that is rural and spends a lot of time outdoors,” Francisca Mutapi, professor of global health infection and immunity at the University of Edinburgh, said during the briefing.

Lockdown effect

A third factor was the imposition of early strict lockdowns in many African countries, at a time when case numbers were still few. 

This broke the worst of the pandemic as it allowed hospitals and health workers to be better prepared and get the requisite Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

In Zimbabwe, President, Emmerson Mnangagwa decreed a State of Emergency, with schools closing a week earlier on March 24. The nation went into a total lockdown on March 30, with only essential services permitted to go to work.

“We can resuscitate the economy later, but we can’t resuscitate a dead person,” the President was on record saying.

The lockdown was painful but it averted a crisis with 33 000 infections having been predicted by May. Today, Zimbabwe had recorded 7 816 as of September 28.

The virus does not move but is moved by humans, it did not find a highway into the rural communities, which in most instances are hard to reach. African rural settings have no airports to boost migration.

The First World, which is easily connected through airways, in no time had an exponential infection rate.

The world has lessons to learn from Africa. 

The worst pandemic in the century has not had a devastating impact in Africa in the same way it has crippled the better equipped First World.

For now, Africa has to remain alert, continue to maintain social distancing and eat healthy, wholesome, unprocessed natural foods to boost the immune system.


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