Scientists mystified as Africa avoids COVID-19 disaster
AFRICA: At a busy market in a poor township outside Harare this week, Nyasha Ndou kept his mask in his pocket, as hundreds of other people, mostly unmasked, jostled to buy and sell fruit and vegetables displayed on wooden tables and plastic sheets. As in much of Zimbabwe, here the coronavirus is quickly being relegated to the past, as political rallies, concerts and home gatherings have returned.
“COVID-19 is gone, when did you last hear of anyone who has died of COVID-19?” Ndou said. “The mask is to protect my pocket,” he said. “The police demand bribes so I lose money if I don’t move around with a mask.” Earlier this week, Zimbabwe recorded just 33 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths, in line with a recent fall in the disease across the continent, where World Health Organization data show that infections have been dropping since July.
When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared the pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions. Although it’s still unclear what COVID-19’s ultimate toll will be, that catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.
Scientists emphasise that obtaining accurate COVID-19 data, particularly in African countries with patchy surveillance, is extremely difficult, and warn that declining coronavirus trends could easily be reversed.
But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, chair of global health at Columbia University. “Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the US, but somehow they seem to be doing better,” she said.
Fewer than 6 per cent of people in Africa are vaccinated. For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.
On Friday, researchers working in Uganda said they found COVID-19 patients with high rates of exposure to Malaria were less likely to suffer severe disease or death than people with little history of the disease.
The research was presented Friday at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Christian Happi, Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, said authorities are used to curbing outbreaks even without vaccines and credited the extensive networks of community health workers.
“It’s not always about how much money you have or how sophisticated your hospitals are,” he said.
Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said African leaders haven’t gotten the credit they deserve for acting quickly, citing Mali’s decision to close its borders before COVID-19 even arrived.
“I think there’s a different cultural approach in Africa, where these countries have approached COVID-19 with a sense of humility because they’ve experienced things like Ebola, Polio and Malaria,” Sridhar said.
In past months, the coronavirus has pummelled South Africa and is estimated to have killed more than 89,000 people there, by far the most deaths on the continent. But for now, African authorities, while acknowledging that there could be gaps, are not reporting huge numbers of unexpected fatalities that might be COVID-related. WHO data show that deaths in Africa make up just 3 per cent of the global total. In comparison, deaths in the Americas and Europe account for 46 per cent and 29 per cent.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the Government has recorded nearly 3,000 deaths so far among its 200 million population. The US records that many deaths every two or three days.
Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who sits on several WHO advisory groups, suggested Africa might not even need as many vaccines as the West. It’s an idea that, while controversial, he says is being seriously discussed among African scientists — and is reminiscent of the proposal British officials made last March to let Covid-19 freely infect the population to build up immunity. That doesn’t mean, however, that vaccines aren’t needed in Africa.
– INDIA TODAY