The continent is at the back of the global queue for diagnostic ingredients
Source: The Economist
AFRICA’S FIRST confirmed case of coronavirus was recorded in Egypt on February 14th. Some worried that, as outbreaks took hold across the globe, the virus would rapidly overwhelm the continent’s fragile health-care systems. For the moment, if official figures are to be believed, such fears have not been realised: Africa, home to 17% of the world’s population, currently accounts for just 1.5% of the world’s confirmed covid-19 cases and 0.1% of deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
The true death toll may be far higher. The low numbers reported so far may partly reflect a paucity of testing. Africa CDC, a public-health agency of the African Union, reckons that just 1.8m Africans have been tested for the virus, or slightly more than 0.1% of the population (Germany, by comparison, has tested nearly 4% of its people; across the OECD, the testing rate is 2.3%, on average). Africa CDC plans to distribute another 1m tests. But even if they succeed, this will still be just 0.2% of the population, far short of the 1% health experts reckon is needed for a successful testing strategy.
Testing has been uneven, too. South Africa, which is home to 4% of the continent’s population, has accounted for more than a third of all tests, thanks to an ambitious screening programme using community health workers. Nigeria, meanwhile, is home to 15% of Africans but has conducted just 2.5% of tests. In Sudan, where there have been 3,820 confirmed cases and 165 deaths from covid-19, authorities have tested only 1,700 people. Tanzania, a country of nearly 60m, has tested fewer than 1,000 of its citizens.
Such failures are caused in part by a lack of market clout, according to a recent report in the Lancet, a British medical journal. As demand for the ingredients needed to make tests has soared, richer and more influential countries have muscled African ones out of the market in order to add to their own stockpiles. “Even when there is enough money, many African health authorities are unable to obtain the supplies needed,” the report states.
Africa’s covid figures would probably be relatively low even if testing were more widespread. Africans travel less, because of poor road networks, making it harder for the disease to spread. African population distribution is also skewed towards the young, which reduces the rate at which infected people are likely to die. But the continent’s poor—many of whom are employed informally—are suffering severely under lockdowns in crowded cities where social distancing is impossible. Better testing would make it easier for them to return to work.