Covid-19 Is Yet To Shake Africa, But New Modeling Suggests A Tsunami Of Infections Is Coming

Cape Town, South Africa - 27 April 2020: Cape Town's busiest street is empty during one of the world's strictest national Covid-19 lockdowns. Micha Serraf/Shutterstock

Currently, Africa has relatively few Covid-19 cases compared to many parts of the world, but new modeling suggests an overwhelming tsunami of infections could hit the continent in the coming months. 

Almost a quarter of a billion people across Africa could fall sick with Covid-19 within the first year of the pandemic and up to 190,000 people could die, according to new research published in BMJ Global Health.

While Africa is expected to experience lower rates of exposure and viral spread compared to other parts of the world, the study suggests it would be enough to massively overwhelm the country’s healthcare systems, further deepening the impact of the virus.

Researchers from the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa used predictive data modeling to assess the community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infections in Africa. They found that 220,000,000 people, or one in four (22 percent) of the 1 billion people in the WHO Africa Region, could be infected in the first 12 months.

Between 37 million and 44 million people may experience symptoms. Up to 140,000 people are expected to have a severe case of Covid-19 and 89,000 would be critically ill, resulting in 4.6 million to 5.5 million possible hospitalizations across the continent. In total, 150,000 to 190,000 lives may be lost. Nigeria is set to have the largest number of infections, followed by Algeria and South Africa, while Mauritania, Seychelles, and Eritrea will have the fewest cases.

As of May 14, Covid-19 cases have been documented in all 53 countries in Africa, with a total of 69,126 cumulative cases in Africa. For comparison, there are over 4,308,800 global cases and the US alone has over 1.39 million Covid-19 cases. Compared to other parts of the world, the projected figures for Africa are not sky-high.

However, there are other factors that need to be considered. Firstly, the models suggest the outbreak in Africa is likely to linger for longer than the rest of the world and possibly continue for several years. Secondly, and most importantly, the outbreak is likely to overwhelm the hospitals and healthcare of many African nations. Africa is a huge continent of diverse countries, but intensive care beds are in short supply, not evenly distributed, and far from most rural communities.

According to Reuters, the continent’s three most populous nations – Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt – have just 1,920 intensive care beds between them for more than 400 million people. As one other example, Chad has only 10 beds for its population of 15 million people. There is also a real lack of ventilators, a vital piece of equipment for chronic Covid-19 infections: Mauritania has one, Liberia has six, Somalia has 19, and Guinea Bissau have no ventilators at all.

If this new modeling is on the money, the healthcare systems of many countries in Africa could soon be facing an immense challenge on their hands. 

“These system capacity challenges highlight the need to ensure the success of the containment measures to avoid the need for mitigation measures that, despite relatively fewer cases expected in the Region, will be difficult to institute," the study authors conclude.

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