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Africa is fascinating experts for having avoided the worst of COVID-19 so far

Published Sep 29th, 2020 3:22AM EDT
Coronavirus update
Image: AP Photo/Anis Belghoul

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  • The latest coronavirus update globally offers a sobering milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic thus far: More than 1 million lives have now been lost worldwide, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.
  • While places like the US and Europe see cases continue to surge, however, experts have been looking at Africa and studying whether its response to the virus has lessons that can be applicable elsewhere.
  • So far, Africa has on the whole managed to avoid the worst predictions about how the continent would fare during the pandemic.

The world reached a terrible milestone on Monday night, with the latest coronavirus update from sources that track the official data around the globe revealing that we’ve now surpassed 1 million deaths worldwide from the COVID-19 virus.

That’s according to data from Johns Hopkins University, which shows that more than half of those deaths have come from just four countries, including the US (more than 204,000), Brazil (more than 141,000), India (95,000+), and Mexico (76,000+). What’s more, these are just the official, confirmed deaths that have been reported — most authoritative sources assume the true global death toll from the virus is higher than this. Here’s the thing, though — there are certainly no winners here. No country has “won” or deserves to celebrate for its handling of the virus compared to another country, because people are dying everywhere. Lives are still being lost, even in countries that have been the most aggressive in responding to the pandemic. Even so, one part of the world has done better enough compared to others, that health experts say it deserves closer scrutiny — to see if lessons can be learned that can be applied elsewhere. That place is Africa.

“The initial disease prediction models painted a very bleak picture of severe devastation of lives and economies in Africa,” Dr. Sam Agatre Okuonzi, who works at Arua Regional Referral Hospital in northern Uganda, said during a World Health Organization news briefing in recent days, as reported by NBC News. “In Uganda, it was predicted that by September, there would be 600,000 cases of Covid-19 and 30,000 deaths. But the reality is starkly different.”

In actuality, Johns Hopkins data shows that Uganda has recorded just 7,064  coronavirus cases and 70 deaths. South Africa, by contrast, has born the brunt of the pandemic on the African continent, with more than 665,000 cases and 16,206 deaths — which works out to about 28 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to more than 61 deaths per 100,000 in the US.

And while you can point to other African countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria that have seen sizeable outbreaks of the virus, most all of the countries on the continent have kept the worst of the pandemic at bay thus far.

Demographics might partly explain what’s going on. Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, pointed out during a recent briefing that only a very small portion of the population in most African countries is over the age of 65. As is widely known by now, advanced age puts a person at much greater risk for contracting the virus — and for contracting a case of the virus that becomes severe.

Another factor that may explain why the continent has not been hit by the virus to the degree that European nations and the US have: Much of the continent’s population is rural and spends a good deal of time outdoors, which is thought to be not conducive to good spread of the virus. And Shaun Truelove, an assistant scientist and modeling expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NBC News another possibility is that there’s some degree of “cross-reactive” immunity within populations in Africa that have been exposed to other coronaviruses.

He’s among a number of scientists who are looking at the COVID-19 situation in Africa more closely to try and glean some useful insights from it. “It’s going to be an interesting discovery process,” he said.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.