Coronavirus Global situation

Why Africa has fewer cases, deaths than other regions

Experts point to inaccurate data, a younger population, past experience tackling diseases

As at Nov 19, the continent had a little over two million cases and more than 48,000 deaths.
As at Nov 19, the continent had a little over two million cases and more than 48,000 deaths.PHOTO: AFP

The battle against the coronavirus pandemic is intensifying as many countries go through second or even third waves of the outbreak.

But while cases and fatalities spike in Europe, Asia and the Americas, the region of Africa appears to be facing a less drastic impact from the virus, with a lower percentage of cases and deaths than others.

Africa accounts for 17 per cent of the global population with over 1.3 billion people, but the continent makes up about 4 per cent of global Covid-19 cases, reported Reuters.

As at last Thursday, the continent had a little over two million cases and more than 48,000 deaths - with a case fatality rate among the lowest globally - despite the poor health infrastructure in many African countries.

In comparison, the United States - the world's worst affected country - had more than 11 million cases and over 250,000 deaths as at last Thursday.

Undercounting

Limited testing capabilities and patchy data in some parts of Africa could be why it seems to have weathered the Covid-19 storm, with some experts pointing to undercounting and under-reporting.

Last month, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation's regional director for Africa, said the testing level in Africa is still very low compared with other continents.

"Most African countries are focused on testing travellers, patients or contacts, and we estimate that a significant number of cases are still missed," she said.

Quick response

The virus hit Africa later than other continents, giving countries and medical personnel there time to set up field hospitals, source for equipment, and also learn from others' treatment and safety methods.

The continent's past experience battling other deadly endemic diseases such as Ebola, malaria, tuberculosis and cholera also guided its governments' public health responses and many were quick to take action.

As soon as the first case was confirmed in February in Egypt, some nations started early preventive measures, such as airport screening, suspending flights from badly affected areas, and enforcing social distancing measures and mask wearing.

  • 17%

    Percentage of the global population that Africa accounts for.

    4%

    Percentage of global Covid-19 cases reported in Africa.

Young population

Research has found that the risk of developing severe Covid-19 increases with age and globally, most of those who have died have been over the age of 80.

Africa is home to the world's youngest population - with the median age being 19 years - and this is a likely factor in its relatively low case mortality rate, said experts.

A United Nations report last year said 62 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's population was under 25 and just 3 per cent was 65 or over.

In comparison, Europe, North America and wealthier Asian countries have the oldest inhabitants.

The virus is also known to have a higher mortality rate for those with health problems such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, which are also less common in Africa.

Favourable climate

A study conducted by researchers in the US found a correlation between temperature, humidity and latitude, and that the virus spreads more easily in lower temperatures and humidity.

Warm and dry climates prevail in Africa with its northern and southern fringes dominated by vast stretches of desert conditions. The central portion is wetter, with tropical rainforests, grasslands and semi-arid climates.

African countries farther from the tropics have been worse off, reported the BBC.

For example, the spread of the virus accelerated in South Africa - the most affected African country - as the southern hemisphere went into winter around July. But as it became warmer in September, the number of cases dropped significantly.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 24, 2020, with the headline 'Why Africa has fewer cases, deaths than other regions'. Print Edition | Subscribe