Coronavirus in Africa

As the disease appears on the diminuendo in Europe, my thoughts turn to Africa and how the coronavirus could potentially play out in the continent. Originally, experts were confounded at the apparent slow start to the pandemic in Africa. Now, the virus seemed to have gained some momentum and is steadily spreading across the continent. The first case of Covid-19 in Africa came from Egypt on the 14th February 2020, apparently, brought in by a Chinese national. Today, four months since the first confirmed case, the number of positive cases stands at 266,977 total confirmed cases and 7,429 confirmed deaths, according to the BBC’s Coronavirus Tracker. The numbers are rising fast.

The start of Covid-19 saw an effective and aggressive response from many African governments, with many closing their borders far before many European countries. Schools were closed in Lagos after only 8 cases were confirmed, Kenya closed its borders and banned public gatherings with just one positive case and Uganda swiftly introduced a mandatory 14-day period of self-quarantine for travellers arriving from high-risk countries.

Nevertheless, there is still huge potential for the virus to wreak havoc in the continent. Without the possibility of social distancing in many African countries, the options and means available in Europe to quell the virus are simply not transferable to the African context. In Nairobi, Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, is only 2.5 square kilometres and home to around a million people. Most inhabitants live in extreme poverty and earn less than $1 a day. A few weeks ago, Kenyans rallied to help a Mombasa mother of 8 who was filmed cooking stones for her children to make them believe she was preparing food for them. The widow planned to trick the children into thinking she was preparing a meal for them, and hoped that they would fall asleep before they realized. Coronavirus put a halt to her income, which she made by hand-washing laundry for local residents. Concepts like ‘furlough’ and ‘working from home’ are impossible in Africa, where the majority of the population survive in the informal economy, earning revenue from ‘cash in hand’ jobs and working daily to self sustain.

I will never forget a story I was told in primary school, about Mwangi, a local Nairobi man who worked at a warehouse in the city. Every day, Mwangi would set off for work from his house at 4 in the morning and embark on his 2 hour long walking commute. At the end of everyday, he would earn 100 shillings (less than £1) and would go to the shops to buy sugar, flour, sukuma (kale) and clean water for his 3 children waiting for him at home. The costs of all the items, were something like:

o Sugar 20

o Flour 15

o Soap 30

o Sukuma 20

o Water 15

The teacher would then ask the class to calculate how much Mwangi would have left at the end of the day for his savings. The answer was nothing. Every day, Mwangi would break-even. The exercise had the intention of illustrating to us, the reality of many Kenyans. While Mwangi himself was a fictitious character, his story is not unlike the real-life experience of many Africans today. If Mwangi was unable to go to work one day, that day he and his children would not eat. Lest he contract an illness like coronavirus, which would potentially put him out of work for a number of weeks. Weeks off work would mean weeks of starvation for him and his 4-person family. Mwangi’s story is reminiscent of life for Joseph. The Kenyan father from Kibera , lives in his home with 7 people. In his house, cooking, cleaning and sleeping are activities all performed within inches of each other. Rather than Covid-19, for Joseph, he believes his killer will be hunger and starvation.

The gravest injustice of the coronavirus pandemic in Africa is that those who are primarily to blame for catalysing the spread of the virus in the continent will ultimately suffer the least. The introduction and certainly the early spread of the pandemic in many African countries was driven by foreigners and the economic elite: people from Europe and those with the means to travel there. Contrary to Madonna dubbing the pandemic as ‘the great equalizer,’ instead, the virus is likely to further entrench pre-existing deep divides and inequality. When the rich in Africa are taken ill, they will likely survive, given their access to world class private healthcare and access to medications. Those who are going to suffer the most are the poor. In all of Sudan, there were maybe less than 500 ventilators at the onset of the pandemic. In Mali, less than 60 respirators. Government slogans which seemed so simple to us here in the Western world: “Stay Home!”, “Wash Your Hands!” are impossible for many parts of Africa. Access to clean water, soap and even kitchen towels limited to thousands in the continent. If access to PPE was a problem in Britain, magnify that problem a thousand times and that will be the reality of the desperation and poor public services in Africa. Furthermore, the lockdown as given already trigger-happy African police carte blanche to essentially act however they please without any fear of reprisal. The greatest exemplification of this being the death of Yasin Moyo in Eastleigh in Nairobi. The 13 year old was shot dead on the balcony of his home as police officers attempted to ‘disperse crowds’ below in line with the 7pm to 6am curfew instituted in the country. The officer claimed it was a ‘stray bullet,’ but Yasin’s death is just one of many instances of police brutality in the East African nation following the implementation of the dusk to dawn curfew. Local Kenyan activists told Vice News that the coronavirus crackdown only highlights a longstanding struggle against Kenya’s killer cops and their fight for justice for the victims.

The difficulty with Africa is also the unknown. Many countries are still not appropriately testing people. As Dr William Hanage highlights, ‘the issues with Africa- like many places but even more so- are that the lack of testing means we don’t have any secure understanding of the true amounts of infection.’ That, coupled with corrupt governments and corrupt press means that many of the figures of Africa’s rates of infection should be treated with valid scepticism. When countries did start testing, the figures went from experts questioning how Africa had been relatively unaffected by the virus so far, to sense of panic at the fact the virus had clearly already taken heed. The number of coronavirus cases increased 20-fold in the last two weeks of March. As demonstrated by Dr Matshidiso Moeti of the World Health Organization (WHO), “case numbers are increasing exponentially in the African region… it took 16 days from the first confirmed case in the region to reach 100 cases. It took a further 10 days to reach the first thousand. Three days after this, there were 2,000 cases, and two days later we were at 3,000.” And now the figure stands at 276,977.

Africa’s saving grace may be its young population. The average age in the continent is 19 years old. Experts hope that this may stave off the spread of the disease and limit its destruction. That, coupled with the infrastructure built in the height of the Ebola virus may have minorly prepared Africa for the impact of Covid-19. Countries that dealt with the Ebola outbreak still have some isolation facilities and medical supplies left over from the epidemic. Ebola, however, of course manifests itself very differently to coronavirus, with the virus only becoming contagious when symptoms show. Ebola also had a much higher death rate, meaning the disease was far less likely to spread as easily as victims due to its 50% fatality rate.

Only time will tell how Africa will fare in this pandemic. The West must keep its eye on Africa’s response. We only win when coronavirus is eradicated from every country in the world. As this virus has perfectly demonstrated, our globalized world means that we are more interconnected than ever. No country is this more evident than in New Zealand. Just over a fortnight ago, New Zealand officially declared itself free of Covid-19 and discharged its last patient from hospital and recorded no new cases for more than two weeks. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden even told reporters she ‘did a little dance’ when she heard the news that the country was virus-free. Within a matter of days, however, following the lifting of restrictions, two new cases arrived from the UK. The case of New Zealand shows us that the fight against coronavirus must be a global fight. Donald Trump’s isolationist tactics of pulling funding from the WHO will only take us one step backwards in the war against this pandemic. As Boris Johnson stated in his speech for the Department of International Development (DFID) ‘the race to find a vaccine is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent endeavour of our lifetimes. We’re in this together, and together we will prevail.’ The irony of this statement from PM Johnson, of course, is not lost as he was obviously the very same man who a few years ago was emphasizing just how prosperous Britain would be on her own once she ‘took back control.’ Now, admitting that ‘no one country… will able to do this on their own.’ The reality is that coronavirus is the biological embodiment of the fact that globalization and cosmopolitanism is a feat that no one government can choose to ignore or resist. We are all connected whether we like it or not.

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