Experts predicted that COVID-19 would kill 300,000 Africans. The experts were wrong. Very wrong.

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer

Africa, with its second-highest population among the world’s continents, has some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

How can this be?

It’s a question that scientists have been trying to answer. After all, many of them predicted that the continent of Africa would be overcome, overwhelmed, oversaturated with COVID-19, when the virus began its global spread earlier this year.

After all, when the Ebola outbreak hit parts of West Africa six years ago, it killed 5,000 people in Liberia, 4,000 in Sierra Leone, and 2,500 in Guinea. Ebola only killed 11 people living in the U.S.

After all, it’s Africa with the unnerving perception of parts of the continent being poor, undeveloped, and lacking proper medical resources, while countries like the U.S. are supposedly known for being rich in medicinal advancement and in technology.

But it’s Africa that, as a continent with 1.3 billion people, had 1.4 million reported COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 1, the New Pittsburgh Courier has learned, while the U.S., the land of the free, the home of the brave, with 970 million less residents, had almost 6 million more reported COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 1.

Europe, the continent with 741 million residents, had 5 million reported COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 1. That’s 3.6 million more cases than Africa’s count, though Europe has 500 million less people.

Other individual countries such as India and Brazil are lapping Africa on the COVID-19 track. India, who has a similar population to Africa, had 6.3 million reported COVID cases as of Oct. 1, or nearly 5 million more than Africa. And as for Brazil, the South American country with 210 million people, it had a staggering 4.8 million reported COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 1, over 3 million more than Africa.

Only Asia, the most populous continent (4.5 billion residents) and the continent where it’s believed that COVID-19 began (China), has an argument as to why it has more COVID-19 cases than Africa. Asia had 10.5 million reported COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 1.

But for pretty much every other aforementioned country or continent, COVID-19 has affected them much harsher than Africa and its 54 countries.

And the experts just can’t understand why.

Hope those experts aren’t the ones placing your bets at Rivers Casino.

“I look at Africa and I look at the U.S., and I’m more optimistic about Africa, to be honest, because of the leadership there and doing their best despite limited resources,” said Sema Sgaier in a Tampa Bay Times article published Sept. 22. Sgaier is director of the Surgo Foundation, a privately funded think tank based in Washington, D.C., which has produced datasets on COVID-19 in Africa and other regions.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump compiled an A-list of the country’s most intelligible experts on infectious diseases, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID. But oftentimes, it’s been the president himself publicly clashing and disagreeing with the same experts he brought into the national spotlight. Now, among other things, the wearing of masks in the U.S. has been politicized, with many of President Trump’s supporters refusing to wear masks at his rallies because the president initially wouldn’t wear a mask himself. On the other side of the aisle, Joe Biden, President Trump’s Democratic challenger for the upcoming Nov. 3 election, always wears a mask (along with most of his supporters), and isn’t holding large rallies in hopes of not spreading COVID-19.

President Trump, as the world knows by now, tested positive for COVID-19 early Oct. 2. After a few days at Walter Reed Medical Center, President Trump, as of Oct. 6, is back at the White House.

It’s an entirely different political climate in Africa when it comes to COVID. John Nkengasong is the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he has been given the respect by the leaders of Africa’s countries to effectively steer the continent’s residents from the virus.

“It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and this can only be found in African unity,” Nkengasong has said, quoted in the Tampa Bay Times. Nkengasong’s comments were first uttered by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah.

Through the media organization Reuters and other reports, the Courier has found that the “African unity” was on display in combating COVID. Kenya shut down its schools only a week after its first case in the country was reported. Kenya also made incoming travelers undergo a mandatory quarantine and large gatherings were banned. Reuters reported that Nigeria was quick to impose a ban on interstate travel and a curfew, and South Africa introduced a large-scale lockdown in late March, when the country reported just 400 COVID cases.

“Almost all countries had established testing within a few weeks and this was after only two countries” had reported COVID-19 cases, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Regional Director for Africa, during a virtual press conference, Sept. 24, viewed online by the Courier.

Dr. Moeti said that 900 WHO staff members in the African region have focused on the continent in its efforts to battle COVID-19. Cooperation from governments to lock down countries early on gave Africa, as a whole, the ability to have a relatively small “first wave” of the virus in March, April and May. Dr. Moeti said that as the governments slowly lifted restrictions over the summer, there had been an uptick in COVID cases. But it was nothing like the “second wave” that hit the U.S. after President Trump urged many states to lift restrictions and reopen the economy.

Dr. Sam Agatre Okounzi, of the Arua Regional Referral Hospital, in Uganda, said during the same WHO press conference that when the COVID-19 outbreak first started, “there was a near-universal concern for countries that are perceived to be poor, particularly African countries, and those who seem to have weak health systems.” The predictive models “painted a very bleak picture of a severe devastation of lives and economies in Africa. In Uganda, there was panic. In Uganda, it was predicted that by September, there would be 600,000 cases of COVID-19 and 30,000 deaths. But the reality is starkly different. The reality is that by the beginning of September, we had 2,500 cases and 32 deaths. 3-2 deaths.”

Dr. Okounzi said the bleak picture painted for Africa concerning COVID was based on European populations, not African populations, as well as “very well-entrenched biases about Africa.” These biases include that the African person is a “person who carries disease,” “Africa naturally being the home of disease,” and that “Africa is a place where this type of disease would flare up most.”

Dr. Okounzi then told the story of a friend, who lived in Italy, wondering to Dr. Okounzi how Africa was being spared of the onslaught of COVID-19, while Italy was being hammered by the virus.

Italy is a country of 60 million people, or about 5 percent of Africa’s population. Yet, Italy had seen 35,000 deaths due to COVID-19 as of Oct. 1, which, according to numerous reports, was the same amount of deaths the entire continent of Africa had seen due to COVID as of the same date.

The U.S., meanwhile, was up to 207,000 deaths as of Oct. 1; Brazil at 143,000; India at 98,000; Mexico at 77,000; and the U.K. at 42,000.

Some experts believe that there has been an underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in Africa. In South Africa, where a reported 15,000 COVID-related deaths have occurred as of late September, Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at Johannesburg’s University of the Witswatersrand, believes the number is higher.

“We think roughly 30,000 rather than 15,000 people have died from COVID-19,” Madhi said in a recent webinar, reported by the Associated Press. “We must appreciate that there had been many deaths outside of hospitals.”
As of late Oct. 1, data being kept by Johns Hopkins University on COVID-19 deaths had South Africa’s death toll at 16,866, the most deaths of any African country.

In addition to the unified effort by Africa to slow the virus, some experts believe Africa’s youthful population in many parts and, according to a report by Reuters, a tuberculosis vaccine regularly given to children in Africa, could be factors in the low death numbers.

But facts are facts, and the fact is that Africa has not seen the COVID-19 devastation that many experts and organizations predicted. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa had said in April that 300,000 Africans would die of COVID-19.

But Africa has successfully bucked the trend, proved the predictors wrong, and the national and international media doesn’t seem to be giving Africa its just due.

“You cannot suppress this,” Dr. Okounzi said. “The deaths that have occurred in society are so loud and so visible, that you can only conclude that it must be accurate, and there are very few (cases in Africa).”

Dr. Okounzi added: “COVID-19 has shattered a lot of biases about disease in general but also about Africa.”

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