After months of slow burn, recorded coronavirus cases are beginning to rise sharply in Africa.
On Sunday night, Africa passed the 300,000 case mark with an overall death toll of around 8,000, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
While these cases amount to just three per cent of the world’s total, experts have warned that the pandemic is now accelerating in many parts of Africa, where poor health services make the virus an acute threat.
It took almost 100 days for Africa to record its first 100,000 coronavirus cases. It took another 18 days for Africa to reach 200,000 cases and a further 11 days to hit 300,000.
John N. Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, has warned that the continent could be the next ‘epicentre’ of the pandemic as cases begin to overwhelm fragile health systems.
Covid-19 has spread more slowly across Africa than many thought it would. This is mainly because most African governments took quick and robust steps to limit the spread of the virus early on, while officials in the UK and US dithered.
As early as January 2, Ivory Coast started screening passengers who had visited China recently. Many other countries followed suit soon after.
When the pandemic began to take Spain and Italy by storm in March, Africa sealed itself off from international travel. Some form of lockdown was implemented in almost every country on the continent when there were still relatively few cases. Many African governments doubled down on preventing these cases from spreading with contact tracing teams.
Experts at the World Health Organization say that Africa’s real caseload is probably far higher than the official tally. Many African countries have struggled to do more than a few hundred tests a day, as wealthier countries buy up kits and lab materials en masse.
Earlier this month, the WHO warned that coronavirus was spreading out of cities and towns into rural areas, where healthcare services are limited.
One medical worker in Eastern Congo told The Telegraph that they feared a ‘wave was about to hit’ the troubled region and that the official figures did not show what was happening on the ground.
According to official statistics, South Africa is the continent’s coronavirus epicentre. Since Africa’s most industrialised economy relaxed its draconian lockdown several weeks ago, recorded cases have soared to about 100,000 — one third of Africa’s total case load.
However, South Africa may be disproportionately represented in Africa’s Covid statistics due to it effective testing. South Africa has conducted more than 1.3m tests for a population of about 58m, this is ten times what Nigeria, with its giant population of more than 200m, has managed.
Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO emergencies programme, said that the picture was mixed across the African continent.
“We’ve seen increases of the disease in some countries in excess of 50 per cent in the last week, and we’ve seen other countries with very very stable numbers.”
But while numbers are on the rise in general – with substantial jumps in places like South Africa, Benin, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Burundi – the continent is yet to report a large rise in the number of deaths, he said.
Dr Ryan added that there are caveats to these numbers – while hospitals do not appear to be overwhelmed, “testing is not as frequent in Africa so there could be under reporting of cases”.
He warned that there is “no room for complacency on the African continent.”
“Will Africa be the next epicentre for this? I certainly hope not,” Dr Ryansaid. “The health systems in Africa is, in general, weaker than elsewhere in the world.
“While they have the benefit of an age profile that’s much older, there are still many elderly people and many with underlying health issues.”