coronavirus: africa figures set to explode

Africa’s 1m coronavirus cases “the tip of the iceberg”
Stephan McCoy, WSWS, Aug 8 2020

Africa, a continent of 1.2b people, has now recorded 1m COVID-19 cases and 21,617 deaths. While the virus was initially slow to take off, the number of cases has risen steadily as lockdown measures and restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus have been lifted. Stacey Mearns, Senior Technical Adviser of Emergency Health at the International Rescue Committee, said:

The doubling of confirmed COVID cases in July across African countries is alarming, but we are worried that this could be the tip of the iceberg. For all the countries where we work in the region, testing rates fall far below WHO guidelines. Without testing, there are indeed ‘no cases’—but this does not mean the virus is not spreading unchecked.

South Africa is by far the worst affected country, accounting for nearly half the infections, with more than 500k cases and more than 9.6k deaths. But Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top health emergencies expert, warned that South Africa foreshadows what is likely to happen across the continent. Other severely affected countries include Egypt with 95k cases and nearly 5k deaths, Nigeria with 45k cases and 930 deaths, Algeria with 34k cases and 1,273 deaths, Sudan with 12k cases and 763 deaths, Morocco with 30k cases and 449 deaths, and Ghana with 40k cases and 206 deaths. These figures must be treated with caution, since most of the continent lacks adequate testing facilities. While the WHO recommends at least one test per 1k people per week, some of the poorest countries, including Niger and South Sudan, have carried out fewer than one test per 1k since March, so the number of cases is vastly underestimated. The number of deaths is also only a rough estimate, as many countries do not have rigorous systems for registering either births or deaths. Even in South Africa, where statistics are broadly reliable, more than 28k excess deaths have been recorded since early May, indicating that the real number of COVID-related fatalities is three times higher than the 9k confirmed deaths. With numbers rising all over the continent, Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said:

We are concerned that we will see an increase in cases, as we have seen in countries where restrictions have been eased too soon.

Between June and July, the number of cases grew by 500%, more than doubling in the month of July despite “dire testing shortfalls and poor access to data” in most African countries, suggesting that the actual incidence of the disease could be much wider than the official figures suggest. WHO Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s warning at the beginning of the pandemic to “plan for the worst and prepare today” and his calls to African governments to “wake up” fell on deaf ears. Most governments imposed strict lockdowns and curfews that led to severe hardship for millions of people living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions, and dependant for their livelihoods on finding work as day labourers or street traders.

Africa’s health-care systems are fragile, to say the least. While the WHO recommends a ratio of 83 nurses per 10k people, sub-Saharan Africa has fewer than 20 nurses for every 10k. In Côte d’Ivoire there are just 6 nurses for every 10k people, compared to 82 in Britain, and in the DRC there are 11 nurses per 10k compared to 132 in Germany. Rural areas fare worse: only 15% of health-care workers in Angola and 17% in South Africa serve rural areas, where roughly half the population lives. According to Bloomberg, Africa accounts for 3% of the world’s health-care workers and 1% of its financial resources, leaving hospitals overflowing with coronavirus patients and running short of oxygen and ventilators. African health-care systems, ill-equipped, underfunded and understaffed, have left health-care workers exposed to the virus. Over 18k health-care workers have contracted the coronavirus on the continent, while at least 258 have already died, largely due to the lack of PPE. According to the WHO, in Liberia, which lost 8% of its health-care workers to Ebola, 184 or 16% of its health-care workers have already been infected. In the small west African nation of Guinea-Bissau, 176 or 9% of the country’s 2k health-care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, while 16% in Niger and 15% in Sierra Leone have tested positive, compared to 3% in Pindostan.

The impact of the pandemic overwhelms and disrupts health-care systems and services for HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, illnesses that also compound the effects of the coronavirus, leading to an additional loss of life. East and Southern Africa have the highest rates of those living with HIV. According to Avert, despite containing only 6.2% of the world’s population, these regions account for 54% of the world’s 20.8m people diagnosed with HIV. In 2018, South Africa added 240k new infections, while Mozambique (150k), Tanzania (72k), Uganda (53k), Zambia (48k), Kenya (46k), Malawi (38k) and Zimbabwe (38k) accounted for 50% of all new infections. In 2018, a massive 1.1m children aged between 0-14 years were living with HIV in East and Southern Africa. The IMF predicts that the Sub-Saharan African economy will contract by 3.2% this year, while the World Bank predicts the African economies will contract between 2.1% and 5.1%. The worst-affected economies are expected to be in South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, primarily due to their reliance on the export of mineral and oil resources. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 200m, 70% of the population, in both rural and urban areas, have suffered a reduction in income since the pandemic began.

Africa’s economy is heavily dependent upon agriculture, accounting for 23% of GDP and 60% of economic activity, and on food imports, both hard-hit by restrictions and lockdowns. At least $47b worth of food was imported in 2018. Trade and value chain disruptions due to world transportation and lockdown restrictions mean these imports could decline by 25%, turning the health-care crisis into a food security crisis. Before the outbreak, 670m Africans were food-insecure, with 270m severely food-insecure. The number had increased by 10% across 13 countries in southern Africa in the last year. According to Relief Web, 40% of the population in southern Africa will become food insecure as a result of the pandemic and climate shocks. In Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, 17m are already food-insecure due to drought. Even Zambia, considered Africa’s breadbasket, has witnessed “acute food and water insecurity, high chronic malnutrition, livestock diseases and crop destruction.” As a result of the pandemic, at least 2m people will become severely food-insecure. Excluding South Africa, 60% of the population in the region relies on small-scale farming. Across the entire continent, at least 80% of all workers are employed in the informal sector. Some 20m are set to lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Just 17.8% of workers are covered by a social protection scheme, with only South Africa and Zimbabwe offering any social safety net. Even this is minimal, with South Africa excluding some of the most vulnerable workers, such as its 4m migrants, and failing to deliver much of the promised $2.2b support package to many workers. In Zimbabwe, the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) lost $22m in a botched deal with a real estate developer. Between 8m to 10m Zimbabweans are expected to require social protection during the coming peak hunger season.

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