Coronavirus catastrophe closes in on Africa

Unready: Only 350 cases of Covid-19 have been reported, but a major outbreak is inevitable.

Could Africa see the worst outbreak yet? As the virus begins to spread across the world’s poorest continent, experts warn the impact could be much more severe than in Europe and Asia.

“A ticking time bomb.”

That’s how one scientist in South Africa describes the coronavirus in the world’s poorest continent. With the global number of cases fast approaching 200,000, only a few hundred have so far been reported in Africa. Most of these have been people arriving from overseas.

But health experts now believe community transmission is taking place and a “substantial epidemic” is highly likely within weeks. The World Health Organisation fears weak governments and inadequate health care systems will fail to cope with an explosion of cases in Africa’s densely-populated cities.

Over 53 million Africans live in slum conditions, with poor sanitation and extremely limited access to healthcare. It is virtually impossible in these circumstances to use social distancing methods to contain the virus. Three generations of one family live under the same roof and without running water or hand sanitiser, there is no way to shield the vulnerable from infection.

To make matters worse, Africa is already fighting an HIV/Aids epidemic that has infected over 23 million people. Along with tuberculosis, HIV severely increases the risk of infection, sickness, and death from flu-like viruses.

And when people fall ill, they are unlikely to get the level of care available in Europe and North America. Kenya, for example, has 50 million people but only 130 intensive care beds, compared to over 4,000 in the UK.

But there may be reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The virus disproportionately affects the elderly and Africa is a young continent with an average age of 20. Only 3% are over-65, compared to 12% in China and 20% in Italy. If fewer people are getting sick, African countries have a better chance of providing the care they need.

The climate may also come to the rescue. Respiratory infections like seasonal flu spread faster and are more severe in cold weather. If Covid-19 behaves in a similar way, the hot climate may weaken its effect in Africa. But experts warn we still don’t know enough about the new virus.

So, could Africa see the worst outbreak yet?

Into Africa

There is hope, say some. Africa’s lack of connections with the rest of the world has bought the continent extra time to prepare for the virus. Unused to epidemics, Europeans were caught off-guard by the coronavirus, and failed to act quickly and take the situation seriously. But Africans have valuable experience and expertise in fighting infectious diseases, like HIV and Ebola.

Others argue that what happens next in Africa will overshadow recent events in Europe. African countries do not have the resources to contain an outbreak, and they do not have the heath services to care for those who get ill. In the past, the world sent aid to Africa in times of famine and disease. With richer countries also facing the pandemic, help may be too little and far too late.

You Decide

  1. Where in the world is the worst place to catch the new coronavirus?
  2. Will the shared experience of the coronavirus bring the world together, or drive us apart?


  1. Imagine you have a Kenyan penpal. Write them a letter explaining how the coronavirus is affecting you and your family, and ask them three questions about how they are preparing for an outbreak.
  2. Watch the short video about four additional challenges facing African countries. In groups of four, come up with creative solutions to reduce the risk of infection.

Some People Say...

“Together, we are powerful. Our greatest enemy right now is not the coronavirus itself: it’s fear, rumours, and stigma. And our greatest assets are facts, reason, and solidarity.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian director general of the World Health Organisation

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The World Health Organisation says its “biggest worry” is the impact the coronavirus will have in African countries with weak health systems. It warns that these countries have struggled to contain and treat respiratory illnesses in the past, and lack the medical resources to cope with an epidemic. However, in the rush to prepare the continent, the WHO has supplied these countries with testing kits, protective equipment, and medical training.
What do we not know?
Despite preparations, Africa lags far behind the rest of the world in its ability to respond to an outbreak. But it is difficult to generalise about all 54 African countries. Some may cope better than others, and the virus may behave differently across the continent. Also, how do we compare the different effects of coronavirus? Mass quarantine in Europe will have a serious economic impact, but overwhelmed hospitals in Africa will lead to more deaths from other illnesses. Can we really say which is worse?

Word Watch

Community transmission
Countries have focused on detecting and isolating individual cases of the virus brought in from outside. Once the virus has begun to spread within a community, it becomes much harder to stop.
World Health Organisation
The United Nations agency responsible for global public health.
Access to clean water and waste disposal.
Social distancing
A way of reducing infection by controlling and reducing social interactions.
The Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes the Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (Aids), which damages the body’s ability to fight infection and disease.
Respiratory infections
These infections target the respiratory system (nose, mouth, throat, and lungs) and make breathing difficult.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.