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The Continued Fight Against COVID-19 in Africa

Wednesday, September 01, 2021 9:34 AM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

Like many other parts of the world, Africa braces itself as the COVID-19 Delta variant makes its rounds. To date, it has found its way to 29 African countries, including Tanzania. (African countries impacted by all COVID variants number 47.) (1)

Photo Credit: Fusion Medical Animation / Unsplash

In some ways, the pandemic on the continent of Africa looks a lot like what we’re seeing in the U.S. For example, parts of the population remain skeptical of the virus. But Africa does not completely mirror the U.S. or other western countries. It has a relatively low infection rate, and its position to receive vaccines is at the end of the line. 

Ahead is an overview of how Africa is faring with the pandemic. We will also take a look at how Tanzania has evolved in its own approach to coping with COVID.

COVID-19 Cases Remain Relatively Low

The key word is relatively. We can all agree that any case of COVID-19 is one too many. As of August 2021, the WHO has reported a total of 5,580,789 cases across the African continent and 135,182 deaths. (2) This represents under 4 percent of infections globally.

Why are these numbers lower than what we are seeing in many other parts of the world? 

In a recent study, (3) several health experts offered multiple theories. The first involves demographics. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the median age is 18. (The same number of people in this region are under the age of 18 as over it.) To put it another way, the number of older adults is low. By now, we know that COVID-19 has been especially brutal on older adults, particularly in its first wave. This is one reason that the U.S. is the country with the highest number of cases and deaths -  at 38, the median age in the U.S. is much higher. 

In addition, how elders are cared for may contribute to Africa’s (again, relatively) low rate of deaths. In Sub-Saharan Africa, most elders are cared for at home rather than in a long-term care community, so they have been somewhat shielded from contagion. Here in the U.S., deaths due to COVID-19 that occurred in long-term care account for over 30 percent of overall deaths. (4)

One telling detail is the number of cases and deaths in South Africa. South Africa is a Sub-Saharan outlier in several ways. At 27.6, its median age is higher than most other Sub-Saharan countries, and its system of elder care communities is much more established. South Africa is also the hardest hit country in Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of COVID-19 cases diagnosed in South African long-term care communities has reached 33 percent. (5)

Other contributing factors for the low rates on the African continent include possible cross-protection from previous exposure to other coronaviruses, limited testing which may not accurately reflect actual numbers, and proactive moves made by some African governments and organizations.

Vaccinating Africa

As of August 2021, just 24 million, or 1.7 percent, of Africa’s population is vaccinated. International leaders are trying to change that. The World Health Organization is leading the effort to distribute vaccines in Africa. Their goal is to vaccinate 10 percent of the population by September 2021 and 30 percent of the population by the end of 2021. (6) Hopefully, the month of July is a harbinger of things to come. During that month the vaccine doses delivered to Africa numbered greater than the previous three months combined.

Photo Credit: Hakan Nural / Unsplash

“After a tough three months, we’re seeing more positive prospects in terms of vaccine shipments to Africa. Unsteady supplies are the main reason Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been slow, so as shipments ramp up it is crucial that African countries put comprehensive vaccination strategies in place to swiftly and efficiently protect the most vulnerable,” said Dr Phionah Atuhebwe, New Vaccines Introduction Officer at WHO Regional Office for Africa. (7)

Did You Know? Morocco is the African country with the highest vaccination rate. The country has vaccinated 36.9 million residents, or 37 percent of its population. (8)

Similar to the U.S., some skepticism about the vaccine exists. In Congo, false messaging and conspiracy theories are circulating, and many are refusing the vaccine. In fact, the country returned over one million doses that had been donated by the African Union. (9)

Some African leaders are downplaying the risks of COVID-19, too. Tanzania’s former president, John Magufuli, is one example. Rather than promoting vaccines, social distancing and mask-wearing, Magufuli advocated healing prayers, herbal remedies and steam inhalation. At one point, he famously declared his country “COVID-free.” In March 2020, Magufuli died from heart complications at the age of 61. He had not been seen in public for over two weeks, and rumors have spread that Magufuli died of COVID-19.

Tanzania’s New President and a New Approach to COVID-19

Samia Suluhu Hassan, previously Tanzania’s vice president, was sworn in as the president just a few days after publicly announcing the death of Magufuli. She has quickly enacted change, first allowing international organizations and embassies to import vaccines for their employees and then applying to join the global COVX vaccine distribution program. She also accepted a donation of one million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine donated by the U.S. government in July, instituted a vaccine purchasing program and released data on infections. (10)

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy Tanzania/Twitter

Hassan is also sending a different message to her countrymen and women. Not only did she receive the vaccine, but she was photographed having it administered for all to see. She has also publicly advocated for hand washing, mask-wearing and social distancing.

However, not all public officials are sending the same signal. Josephat Gwajima, an evangelical preacher and member of parliament, instead argues that the vaccine interferes with human DNA.

As of August 2021,Tanzania has had a total of 1,1367 cases of COVID-19, which amounts to .02 percent of cases in Africa. The country has had 50 deaths. (11)

Students at Saving Grace School in Arusha, Tanzania mask up. Photo Credit: Brighter Tanzania Foundation


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