What you need to know:
- When Melinda Gates recently suggested that Covid-19 will hit Africa hard, many Africans were not amused and she was attacked on social media.
- However, the low case numbers being witnessed in Africa have not been explained in a way that can convince one that Africa will be spared the wrath of the virus.
Even more important would be to establish if the low numbers are indeed a true reflection of a low prevalence of the disease in the continent or a product of low testing rates in African countries.
Whatever the case African governments need to have learnt from other countries and must choose courses of action that were missed by countries in Europe and North America.
On April 12, 2020, Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft billionaire, Bill Gates, and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, made a stark forecast about the fate of Africa in the age of the coronavirus global pandemic, suggesting that the African continent is set to suffer great consequences if the pandemic reaches a peak there in similar ways like in Europe, America and Asia.
In her interview with CNN, she referred to reports of dead bodies in Ecuador and added that “you are going to see that in Africa.”
She cited weak healthcare systems, poverty and slum dwelling, difficulty of enforcing physical distancing and lack of clean water as the reasons why Africa is essentially sitting on a disaster the continent will surely be incapable of dealing with if the virus takes hold here.
Many Africans on the internet were rattled by Gates’ projections and were thrown anew into intense debates that had been going on around the factors underpinning the inexplicably low Covid-19 case numbers all across the continent.
The mindset among many African ‘netizens’, it seems to me, is that these low numbers are what they are, that Africa is where it is with regards to the impact of the pandemic and no reason for anyone without evidence to issue such doomsday warnings.
In fact, some of the reactions to Mrs Gates’ predictions saw her as wishing the continent ill. “Back to sender, their evil thoughts for Africa won’t manifest,” commented one and “No evil plan from the Gates family shall come to pass over Africa,” said another, just to cite a couple.
Such comments are obviously naïve in view of the horrendous impact of this disease on humanity and the focus should not be on anyone’s hidden intentions but for Africa to prepare against such an eventuality as Melinda Gates has suggested, particularly seek to understand why Africa has not yet been hit as hard.
If the reasons for the low numbers were identified, they could be the take-off point for emergency responses, working in the direction of and improving on whatever has been delaying the infections.
Though questions about these numbers started with such simplistic propositions as “this disease will not affect Africans,” or that “Africa has had its share of calamities and it will be spared this time,” the debate has since moved to more substantive issues.
These include the mix of unconfirmed and controversial reports that have tried to explain the low infection rates in terms of immunity, climate, past vaccinations, nutrition, or even genetics.
For example, there has been some talk among health experts about the possibility that the BCG vaccination against Tuberculosis provides a boost to the immune system which may improve protection against Covid-19.
After all, it is now evident that the coronavirus varies so much in its severity from person to person, raising possibilities that it may be as different for each person as the uniqueness of the person’s DNA.
Others have referred to the potential impact of climate, especially heat and ultraviolet rays, on the virus itself, which is supported so far by the relatively low impact of the virus in the tropics.
Whatever reasons are being offered to explain the low rates, there is still no concrete scientific evidence that Africa’s low numbers are born of some advantage that Africans may have over others, and yet, the question of what is keeping the numbers down remains a puzzle.
The attempts to explain these numbers have also suggested that perhaps people are getting infected but due to some combination of characteristics unique to some Africans, most remain asymptomatic.
What raises these questions is partly the fact that the living conditions, social interaction, crowded workspaces and delayed emergency interventions in Africa are circumstances that have the potential to propel transmission, and yet the infection rates have not risen to the levels we saw in Asia and in the Global North.
If the numbers are indeed as low as reported, no one has provided real evidence about the factors behind that, leaving many Africans to speculate, hope, pray to their gods and even venture a little into superstition.
How true is it, though, that the numbers are indeed low? Many public health experts from outside Africa and skeptics from within some African countries have suggested that the only explanation for these low infection rates is that Africans are not being tested enough.
Or perhaps African governments are not reporting the real figures, partly due to incapacity to know or because they are deliberately hiding the real figures for political reasons.
Others who are skeptical about these low rates go further to say that there may well be many infected people in congested and poor urban area or in remote rural towns and villages, where there are no health services, leaving people untested and therefore unreported.
There has been a great deal of push back on these questions, as local health professionals urge their populations to focus on fighting the coronavirus head on, using physical distancing and personal hygiene as the rest of the world is doing.
They caution against looking at numbers as suggestive of Africa’s uniqueness in resistance to the virus.
Global leaders and prominent health and development experts who have issued dire warnings about Africa have downplayed the significance of the low Covid-19 case numbers, saying that the reason they are still so low has to do with inadequate testing.
But the argument that inadequate testing explains the low figures, is a curious one. If these low rates are born of lack of testing, nondisclosure of figures or total lack of knowledge, would we not have large numbers of people with symptoms flooding to the hospitals and clinics, especially in large and crowded urban quarters? This is not the case at all.
What is true, however, is that most Africans simply remain hopeful and defiant, that this disease will not do in Africa what it did in other places.
And so Africans hope and the world waits to see. After all, it is not as if these dire predictions would suddenly fix the vulnerabilities that Africans face and which could facilitate the virus against them.
It is entirely acceptable for people in desperate situations to bank on hope, and no one has the right to consider that naivety, to reject any community’s popular explanations for the slow pace of the virus and to alarm people with undocumented projections.
Nevertheless, African governments need to look at the current status as an advantage, that Africa is still at the stage where many countries were before things got worse and to choose courses of action that were missed by countries in Europe and North America.
The author is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.