The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that COVID-19 has so far made a “soft landfall” in the continent of Africa – with nearly 100,000 cases throughout and a relatively low number of deaths. Compared to other regions, Africa has been spared high infection and mortality rates.
The relatively low levels of infection are a combination of luck and good management. Many African nations implemented lockdown measures early, having seen the results of the virus spreading in countries like Italy or the UK. That Africa was not one of the early regions to suffer gave it time to take preventative action. Its leaders also had the good sense not to call COVID-19 “a little flu”, and subsequently not take appropriate action and condemn many of their citizens to death.
One of the factors that may have made a considerable difference in Africa is the actions of the African Union currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Under his stewardship, the African Union have worked closely and effectively with the WHO on measures to stop the virus spreading throughout the region. They have also worked closely with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to push for debt restructuring in response to the global economic crisis this pandemic has caused. Unlike the European Union, the African Union has proactively helped the 55 nation members work together to combat this virus.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has stood out as a leader during this pandemic, implementing one of the toughest lockdowns in the world to stop the virus. His act fast, act hard policy has been widely praised as showing decisive leadership that has saved lives.
Ramaphosa has no doubt learnt from his predecessor Thabo Mbeki’s abysmal response to the HIV crisis in South Africa where inaction by the government caused the virus to spread quickly. Sadly it’s through these sort of deadly mistakes that politicians learn the importance of prevention in public health.
The picture isn’t all rosy in Africa. As virus numbers rise, South Africa is warning it could run out of ICU beds in June. There are also grave concerns for the state of the South African economy as a result of the lockdown, given it was already struggling before this crisis.
Issues in South Africa pale in comparison to the issues in Tanzania, where the government is suspected to have covered up the infection rate and death toll. President John Magufuli has led a crackdown on anyone who criticises the government handling of COVID-19, and opposition politicians have had their phones tapped. Tanzania has been an exception in Africa where most governments have implemented a shutdown. In Tanzania, the president has fired health experts and refused to implement a lockdown. Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the Tanzanian government to share data on COVID-19 infection rates and remains worried at the lack of data coming out of the country to date. Kenya has closed its border with Tanzania apart from cargo traffic and imposed testing measures on Tanzanian truck drivers after more than 50 of them tested positive for the virus in a single day.
Tanzania is the outlier, with most other African nations acting responsibly and listening to WHO guidance. 100,000 cases of COVID-19 out of a population of 1.216 billion throughout the African continent is a very good result. Africa is the poorest continent on earth, and only a few decades earlier suffered from European colonisation. HIV and Ebola have added further suffering to a war-torn and impoverished region. The actions of the African Union, and the majority of its member states to prevent the spread of COVID-19 could well be a turning point for Africa. While much of the continent remains economically deprived, Africa has now shown the world that its leaders can take decisive action to save lives and prevent suffering. If crippling debt imposed on African nations by better-off countries (who in many cases were former colonisers of the region) can be written off, this region has a real chance to develop over the coming decade.
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