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.

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.

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.

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. The climate may also come to the rescue. Respiratory infections are more severe in cold weather.

So, could Africa see the worst outbreak yet?

Into Africa

There is hope, say some. 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. 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?


  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.

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.

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