Ministry of health workers at GPO bus station, Nairobi. Kenya is taking more preventive measures in the fight against the coronavirus. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Why does Sub-Saharan Africa have so few cases of the coronavirus? As of Tuesday this week there were 158 confirmed cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. This region has a population of about 1 billion people. South Africa has the highest number of confirmed cases at 62, almost 40% of the cases. Most of these were from wealthy white South Africans who had been returning from Europe. The next highest country is Senegal with 26. Only 25 out of the 49 countries have even one case of the virus, leaving 24 with no cases at all. Note also that many of these cases are from tourists, particularly from Europe, coming to Africa with the disease.

Read here an article from Africa, Africa is Not the Center of The Coronavirus Epidemic and the West is Pissed by Rufaro Samanga (OkayAfrica, March 10, 2020). He states,

Since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, I’ve become increasingly annoyed by the multitude of news headlines from publications in the West desperate to find out why the recent outbreak is “sparing” Africa but not everyone else. While it may be a better pill to swallow, African governments are already leading the way in terms of response efforts and they will continue to show the rest of the world what needs to be done and how.

Therefore the next time you see the stereotype that Africa is a disease-ridden continent, remember that as far as coronavirus is concerned it is the United States, Europe, and China that are “disease ridden.” The question that this Report from Kenya covers is why Africa has not had the large number of cases as other parts of the world.

This Report will focus on Kenya because it is considered one of the prime African countries to get the virus and the country which I know most about its response.

Coronavirus is a disease transmitted by affluence. Wealthy people from affluent countries like the United States, Europe, and China are able to travel throughout the world, opening up many opportunities for them to bring the virus back to their home country. Few Africans have the resources to take international travel, particularly as tourists. This also explains why white South Africans lead in the number of cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Poverty, in this case, is a real virtue.

African governments realize that their health care systems are inadequate and could easily be overwhelmed by the virus. This is the opposite of the false overconfidence in the United States that said it had the “best health care system in the world” and would easily contain the virus. Africa did not have the denial that the US and other countries had. As a result, they responded proactively. Before the first case came to Kenya, the Kenyan government, regardless of the economic consequences, had canceled all international conferences, a strong component of their tourist industry. More controversially it refused to repatriate the 85 Kenyan students studying in Wuhan, China. It demanded that all major hospitals develop isolation rooms and train staff on responding to the epidemic. While I have noted in the past (see here) how difficult it is for a Kenyan to get a visa to enter the United States, the tables have now turned. Americans (and people from countries who have recorded the virus, meaning most countries in the world) are not allowed to enter Kenya. Americans can’t come to see the world famous wildebeest migrations cross the Mara River.

Kenya, by being one of the last countries, to have the virus enter, was willing to  learn from responses of other countries on what does or does not work to control the epidemic. Humility, again, unlike the arrogance in the US, is a virtue.

There was absolutely no mention, no thought here in Kenya that people would need to pay for coronavirus testing or even quarantine in hospitals. Kenya has government sponsored “socialize” medicine as all countries in the world have except the United States. Therefore people who show symptoms of coronavirus will not be reluctant to visit the hospital to take the free test because they don’t have the needed funds.

Kenya, like all African countries, also learned from the experience of the Ebola crisis. I remember, when we were coming back to Kenya during Ebola, all passengers were tested for fever with one of those new fever guns. After I went through the line, I could not find my wife, Gladys. She had a slight fever and was escorted to a room where she had to fill out her details of home, phone number, etc. and told to report to the hospital if she became sick. Even before the first case in Kenya, all airports and border crossings were testing people for fever. Kenya was taking no chances. In addition Kenya has had a major polio eradication program for many years. (Kenya is now certified as “polio free” along with all but four countries in Africa.) This has given the country considerable experience in large scale health campaigns.

Whenever a case of coronavirus occurs, Kenya tracks those who have been in close contact with the patient. When the first case occurred in Kenya, they immediately quarantined 22 people who had been in close contact with her. Two of these people became coronavirus positive and then their close contacts were also quarantined. This is not the first case of tracking in Kenya as it has been tracking tuberculosis cases for years. The United States does not do this type of tracking and has no experience doing it. This is one of the major methods of containing the spread of the disease.

Kenya news alert: Long distance travel public service operators will be required to keep records of all the passengers using their services henceforth. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure says the records will come in handy in tracking any possible coronavirus case. [KCB News, March 19.]

This is a picture of one of the vents in our bedroom. During the day the doors and windows are always open. There is no separation between the fresh outside air and the air in the house.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, one of the things learned was that fresh air and sunshine made patients recover more quickly. While there is flu in Kenya, there is no “flu season” like the winter months in the northern hemisphere where people are cooped up in small interior spaces with other people. Kenyans are continually exposed to fresh air and sunshine. This suppresses the spread of disease.

While Bill Gates alarmingly predicts that up to 10 million people may die from coronavirus in Africa, I think he is wrong. Beside the points raised above, due to high population increase over the last hundred years, Kenya’s population has proportionally very few elderly people who have the highest rate of death from the virus. This is the opposite of the high death rate in Italy which, after Japan, has the second oldest population in the world.

Of course, there is no guarantee that African countries will all avoid major infections of coronavirus, but I am much more optimistic about Kenya than I am about the United States which, in my humble opinion, has had a disastrous response to coronavirus. Yet when the US (or China) catches a “cold”, Kenya (and the rest of the world) will economically suffer. This will be my topic for next week’s Report from Kenya.


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David Zarembka

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