Sub-Saharan Africa’s weeks-long reprieve from the fatal impact of the coronavirus came to an end on Wednesday as Burkina Faso announced the death of a 62-year-old woman who had been suffering from diabetes.
Africa has lagged behind the global curve for coronavirus infections and deaths but in the past few days has seen a significant rise in cases.
Experts have repeatedly warned about the perils for the continent, given its weak health infrastructure, poverty, conflicts, poor sanitation and urban crowding.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, reported a more than one-third jump in cases on Wednesday, with 31 new infections bringing its tally to 116.
Nearby Zambia also announced its first two confirmed cases – a couple that returned to the capital Lusaka from a 10-day holiday excursion in France.
The news of the first coronavirus death came after the poor Sahel nation of Burkina Faso reported seven new infections, increasing its total to 27, as well as the woman’s death overnight.
As of Wednesday, a tally of reported cases, compiled by AFP, stood at 576 for all of Africa.
Of these, 15 cases have been fatal: six in Egypt, five in Algeria, two in Morocco, one in Sudan and one in Burkina Faso.
Those figures are still comparatively small compared to the rest of world – the global death toll has passed 8,000 with nearly 200,000 total infections.
But there are fears – in Africa and elsewhere – that the real number of infections could be higher.
– Crackdown –
Watching from afar as the disaster unfolds in Asia and Europe, some African countries have wasted little time in ordering drastic measures.
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Air traffic has been particularly hard hit, as many of Africa’s initial cases were people who had returned from highly-affected countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Some countries, such as Somalia, Chad, Guinea-Bissau and, most recently, the island of Madagascar have moved to shut all airports and stop all flights into their countries.
On Wednesday, Cape Verde – a tropical archipelago off Africa’s west coast that is heavily dependent on tourism – and the continent’s most populous nation, Nigeria, joined other nations in banning flights from the countries most affected by coronavirus.
Burkina Faso has ordered the closure of all schools and barred all public and private gatherings until the end of April.
Though Niger has not yet recorded an infection, the government on Tuesday closed borders and schools for two weeks.
Senegal has the most confirmed cases in West Africa with 27, while in the east, 23 cases have been reported in six countries, including flight hubs Ethiopia and Kenya.
South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s worst-hit country, has banned all cruise ships from its waters. More than 1,700 people are stranded on a liner off Cape Town over fears that some have the virus.
It is just the latest blow to tourism across the continent, with coronavirus fears cancelling sporting, cultural and religious events.
– ‘Disease hot spot belt’ –
A 2016 analysis by the Rand Corporation, a US thinktank, found that of the 25 countries in the world that were most vulnerable to infectious outbreaks, 22 were in Africa – the others were Afghanistan, Yemen and Haiti.
The report put the finger on a “disease hot spot belt” extending on a line of countries, running across the southern rim of the Sahara through the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, many of which are struggling with conflicts.
“Were a communicable disease to emerge within this chain of countries, it could easily spread across borders in all directions, abetted by high overall vulnerability and a string of weak national health systems along the way,” the report warned.
According to the World Bank, health spending amounted in 2016 to $78 per inhabitant in sub-Saharan Africa compared with a world average of $1,026, with a peak of $9,351 in North America and $3,846 in the European Union.
On the plus side, the continent has unrivalled experience in dealing with outbreaks of contagious disease, from Ebola, malaria and measles to cholera and HIV.
“Our preparedness is better because of the lessons learned from the Ebola crisis,” Mosoka P. Fallah, director-general of Liberia’s National Institute of Public Health in Liberia, said this month, referring to an 2014-16 epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives in three West African nations.