On April 27, Simon Atkinson of BBC News wrote in Coronavirus and climate: Australia’s chance to shift to green energy, “Australia is faring far better during the pandemic than many nations – with fewer than 6,800 confirmed cases and 83 deaths reported as of late April.” Look at the chart above and notice how much better Kenya is doing than Australia. On their 29th day after reaching 1 case per million of population, Kenya had 7.9 cases per million people while Australia had 170 cases per million people. Why then don’t reporters say, “Kenya is faring far better during the pandemic than MOST nations.”

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Current count in Kenya as of Thursday, April 30: 396 confirmed cases, 17 deaths, 144 recovered, and 20,268 people tested for the virus. This is an increase in the last week of 76 confirmed cases (10 fewer cases than the previous week), 3 deaths, 55 recovered, and 4,476 people tested (639 per day). Kenya has 7 cases per million people while the United States has 3,308 cases per million people and 0.3 deaths per million people while the United States has 193 deaths per million people.  

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In response to my last week’s posting (see here) on Kenya’s response to Covid-19, I received the following comment from one of my loyal readers:

Oh my, I loved this one! I was hugging myself and cheering you on as I read. How is that outsiders continue to predict African armageddon? Where is their famous science?  As I write this, Sub-Saharan Africa has 14,177 cases of covid-19 — almost exactly the same number as the province of Ontario in Canada or the state of Ohio in the US. No exponential growth, just slow incremental cases that are already tailing off. But don’t let facts get in the way of a good horror story!

For the last four weeks or so, I have been wanting to write this Report from Kenya on how much better Sub-Saharan Africa is in containing Covid-19 than most of the rest of the world. The experts have been predicting that Africa would have a geometrical explosion of cases as has happened in some other parts of the world. Week after week, as I have waited for this explosion, it hasn’t happened. It is time to accept that Sub-Saharan Africa is responding to the pandemic much more successfully than the so-called “first world.”

WorldPopulation millionCasesCases millionDeathsDeaths million
Total7,7103,304,220424233,83030
  Europe7381,373,4441861135,235183
  North America5801,185,074204369,519120
  Asia4,580520,05011418,6104
  South America423176,8144188,70221
  Africa1,33239,7853016381.2
    North Africa29415,0215110563.6
    Sub-SaharanAfrica1,03924,764245820.56
  Oceania388,3322191112.9

Note that I have separated the five countries of North Africa from the fifty countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. This is because North Africa is both physically, economically, and culturally closer to Europe and had much more exposed to Covid-19. Although North Africa is only 22% of the African population, it composes 38 per cent of the African Covid-19 cases and 64 percent of the deaths.

Note that Sub-Saharan Africa with 13 per cent of the world’s population has only 0.75 per cent of the world’s cases. This is 5.7 per cent of the world’s average number of cases per million people.

Also note that the rate of death in Sub-Saharan Africa at 0.56 deaths per million people is also extremely low. A smaller percentage of Africans who are Covid-19 positive are dying from the infection. This could partly be explained by the fact that the African population is considerably younger than the world’s average or that of Europe or North America. This also means that Sub-Saharan African nations need less ICU beds and ventilators than countries which have many more serious cases of the virus.

One issue is the Sarah Palin fallacy, namely that Africa is one country. Rather it is made up fifty-five different countries. Each of these countries is going to have its own path of the Covid-19 virus and how it responds to the virus. In Sub-Saharan Africa only one country, Djibouti, has not successfully controlled the virus. I will discuss the reasons for this below. 

Lesotho has yet to record even one case of Covid-19. Burundi is another interesting example. It originally had 5 cases imported by travelers from outside the country. These 5 cases infected 6 other people. All have been put into quarantine with one death. Twenty-one additional Sub-Saharan countries have had less than 100 cases.

Djibouti, with 1102 cases per million and 2 deaths per million, is a small nation in the Horn of Africa with less than 1 million people. It, though, is the home of many military bases – United States (also hosting British military personnel), France (hosting German and Spanish troops), Italy, Japan (sharing its base with Indian troops), and China with Saudi Arabia and India planning on developing bases there. One of the hush-hush aspects of Covid-19 is how it has impacted the military. Without doubt the various military personnel from these countries brought the virus to Djibouti – I doubt that any military cases are included in the country’s total of 1089 cases – and spread it to the local population.

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So why has Sub-Saharan Africa done so well? Here are some possible explanations:

1. Poverty: Covid-19 was spread around the world by affluence. Wealthy people and business people flying around the world spread the virus. Africa accounts for only 2.2% of the world’s air passengers. This gave the continent a breathing space before the virus arrived, allowing it to respond early before the virus had spread into the general population as occurred in Europe and the United States.

2. Vigorous proactive response: The Sub-Saharan African nations reacted early to the Covid-19 threat. Kenya, for example, cancelled all international conferences even before there was one case in the country. With the first death, Kenya closed all schools, banned all gatherings including weddings and funerals, closed its places of worship and beaches (actions which the United States still hasn’t completely done), and closed or restricted access to manybusinesses. Other countries were even more proactive in their responses including banning international flights and closing borders. Uganda (only 83 cases) instituted a travel ban to keep the virus from spreading. South Africa (5,647 cases) instituted a complete lockdown.

3. Lessons learned from HIV/AIDS, TB, and Ebola: Sub-Saharan Africa has been hard hit by HIV/AIDS, TB, and Ebola. As a result the African countries have had considerable experience in confronting these diseases which is useful in their response to Covid-19. For example, there is the tracking of cases by trained, experienced personnel. Isolation and quarantine are not new developments, but part of the response to these other diseases. In 2015, 170 Kenyan personnel went to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help with the Ebola response there. Now back in Kenya their expertise is being used in responding to Covid-19.

4. Willingness to institute firm policies: Sub-Saharan African countries have had to respond to many health crises including malaria, polio, cholera, typhoid fever, and other diseases. These governments are used to taking drastic actions to contain various outbreaks. As a result government officials including presidents, unlike many of those in Europe and the United States, were not reluctant to impose major restrictions when necessary. This was in spite of the political, social, and economic consequences of these actions and the opposition of the affected people and businesses. On the negative side this sometimes led to abuses by the police.

5. Willingness to listen to and implement scientific advice: Sub-Saharan African nations knew that their medical systems were weak and that they would be unable to manage major outbreaks in their population. Rather than being a negative aspect, medical and political leaders were willing to listen to scientific advice, particularly from the World Health Organization, and implement the advised recommendations.

6. Lack of air pollution: While there is air pollution in the major African cities like Nairobi, Lagos, or Johannesburg, it is not nearly as severe as some cities in other parts of the world. Moreover a small percentage of the Sub-Saharan African population is urbanized so their lungs have not been compromised by pollution. This may be another reason that the number of deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa (now at 582 deaths) is so low.

7. Sunshine and warmth: There is no “flu season” in Sub-Saharan Africa as there is in the northern hemisphere. There is some evidence that Covid-19 is not as contagious in warmer climates and that sunshine itself kills the virus. This is still speculation, but further studies to be made as the northern hemisphere enters summer and then the winter flu season ought to determine the importance of sunshine and warmth.

How important each of these explanations and perhaps others is in explaining Sub-Saharan Africa’s response to Covid-19 is unclear at this time. As Plato wrote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

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Here is the current case load in nearby African countries (plus the United States for comparison) as of Thursday, April 30. The increase is compared to the previous week’s total number of cases. The total population of these 9 countries is 351 million people, while the total population of the United States is 333 million people.

CountryCasesCasesIncreaseDeathsRecovered
4/30/20204/23/20204/30/20204/30/2020
Burundi1111014
Ethiopia13111615359
Kenya3963207617144
Rwanda243154890104
Somalia6013282732831
South Sudan3543100
Sudan4421622803139
Tanzania48028416167
Uganda83749052
Eastern Africa2,4221,45396996541
United States1,095,023886,442208,58163,856152,324

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David Zarembka

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Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

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