Statistics were edited at 9:00 AM EST, March 18th, 2020 to reflect the current data.
As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread around the world, countries in Africa are faced with a growing number of cases and concerns. As of March 18th, 2020, 577 cases of COIVD-19 have been reported, spanning 30 countries on the continent. Of these cases, 47 have recovered and 14 have resulted in death.
Coronavirus in Africa
Several countries throughout Africa are preparing for the pandemic. Kenya and Ghana among others have closed their borders to travelers from some, or all, affected countries. Meanwhile, Tunisia has ordered mosques to cease group prayers, and Morocco has shut down mosques altogether.
Egypt, Algeria, and South Africa are facing the highest numbers of cases, with 166, 67, and 62 confirmed cases, respectively. Egypt (6), Algeria (5), Morocco (2), and Sudan (1) are the only countries that have reported deaths thus far. Though cases on the continent currently only comprise about 0.3% of the roughly 201,000 confirmed cases worldwide, Africa is not safe from the coronavirus.
Many African countries, and their citizens, are at high risk for devastating effects from a COVID-19 outbreak. Poor health infrastructure, limited access to important protective gear, and a region with the highest number of HIV cases worldwide leave numerous African countries particularly vulnerable to the disease.
There is a rumor that black people have an immunity to the virus. The rumor spread, in part, due to an article from The Zambian Observer with incorrect information regarding the virus and the role melanin plays in the body’s defense against it. In reality, melanin plays no role in susceptibility to the virus. Anyone, regardless of race, age, or gender, can get infected with coronavirus. Mutahi Kagwe, the Kenyan health minister clarified the false statements, saying:
“I would like to disabuse that notion. The lady (confirmed with coronavirus in Kenya) is an African, like you and I.”
Like other rumors regarding the virus—which claim everything from cocaine to garlic soup can cure the disease—there is potential for real harm. More than 40 deaths in Iran were linked to rumors that drinking methanol could save people from COVID-19. Repercussions like these show that the naivety of a few can result in consequences for many.
A few people believing they are immune to something as highly infectious as COVID-19 could put hundreds of people at risk. If someone believes they cannot get coronavirus and continues about their daily life while symptomatic, they could infect anyone they come into contact with. As those people go home, they could spread it to their families, who could spread it to coworkers. Simple misinformation could result in a chain reaction that greatly increases infection rates, and, consequently, fatalities.
Coronavirus in Eastern and Southern Africa
Eastern and southern Africa had an estimated 20.6 million cases of HIV as of 2019. In the same year, Africa as a whole had 25.7 million individuals living with HIV. In other words, 80.2% of Africa’s HIV cases are in one region.
Human immunodeficiency virus attacks immune cells, weakening a patient’s immune system. This leaves a large percentage of the population more susceptible not only to infection, but severe infection with the novel coronavirus. Consequently, more than 80% of people with HIV in Africa are living in just a few countries. The result will likely be high strain placed on over-burdened medical systems.
In addition to the high rates of infection overall, there is a large population of teens and young adults living with HIV. Young people, aged 15—24, with HIV in the WHO’s Eastern and Southern Africa Region number more than 2.2 million, almost 11% of the region’s total cases. With such a high rate of HIV, COVID-19 is a great risk for young people in the region. If the coronavirus spreads similarly to the way it spread in China, Italy, and Iran, countries in southern and eastern Africa may contribute to a climbing death toll amongst an age group not usually considered high-risk.