Covid: African Experience

Wired Article: ” Two months after it opened, Khayelitsha Field Hospital abruptly closed. The facility, constructed in a sports hall in early July on the outskirts of the South African city of Cape Town, had been constructed in anticipation of a wave of Covid-19 deaths. But the infections and deaths that have overwhelmed healthcare systems across the world never came. Almost a year into the pandemic Africa has mostly been spared from a crisis that has brought much of the world to its knees.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. In April, as Covid-19 shut down country after country, the United Nations issued a stark warning: Africa might be next. Officials said Covid-19 could directly kill at least 300,000 people in Africa and possibly as many as 3.3 million. In May, with infections and deaths still surprisingly low, the World Health Organisation revised that prediction down to between 83,000 and 190,000 deaths. To date, just over 40,000 Africans have lost their lives to Covid-19. “Very few cases were identified,” says Gilles Van Cutsem, a senior HIV and tuberculosis adviser for Médecins Sans Frontières at the Southern African Medical Unit in Cape Town.

There is no single reason for Africa’s seemingly remarkable escape. For one, Africa isn’t a homogenous lump of land. Its 54 countries are ethnically and socially diverse. Yet, across the continent, there are some trends that hint at why deaths from Covid-19 remain so low. The median age in Africa, where more than 60 per cent of people are under the age of 25, is about half of that in Europe. This has played a significant role, says Denis Chopera, a public healthcare expert at the Africa Research Institute in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He also points to Africa’s warm climate and the potential of pre-existing immunity in some communities. “Africa has a high burden of infectious diseases, including coronaviruses, and it is possible that there is some cross-immunity which protects Africans from severe Covid-19,” Chopera says. The WHO has made similar suggestions.

Across the continent, high rates of tuberculosis, HIV, polio and Ebola, have also ensured a wealth of well-trained medical professionals and, crucially, the infrastructure and expertise to handle a pandemic. “The experience has come in handy, especially in countries such as South Africa where contact tracing already existed for tuberculosis,” says Chopera. “These were repurposed to combat Covid-19.”


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