Though the incidence of the novel coronavirus has been relatively low in Africa, health systems there are still highly vulnerable to an outbreak. One concern is that, were coronavirus to overwhelm Africa’s fragile health infrastructure, many more Africans will die of diseases left untreated than from the virus or its complications. Bloomberg cites figures that illustrate Africa’s weakness: Africa accounts for 16 percent of the world’s population but just 1 percent of its health care spending. Italy, under assault from coronavirus, has 41 medical doctors per 10,000 people; in Africa there are 2 medical doctors per 10,000.
During the 2014–2016 West African Ebola crisis, already scarce medical resources used for diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS were diverted to fight Ebola. While it killed about 11,000 people directly, one analysis found that an additional 10,000 were killed as a result of diverted resources. During the epidemic, victims of other diseases would often avoid treatment out of fear that they would contract Ebola at a medical facility.
Some African states and international agencies are taking steps to mitigate the consequences of coronavirus in Africa. For example, Bloomberg cites the Nigeria Federal Ministry of Health’s repurposing of a medical facility to quarantine patients. The International Monetary Fund has pledged $10 billion at no interest for poor countries. The relative youth of Africa’s population may be a mitigating factor, as coronavirus does not appear to be as severe among children. Further, the eldery, who appear to be especially vulnerable to the disease, mostly live in extended families rather than in elder-care facilities that facilitate transmission of the disease.
Even more than in other parts of the world, much about coronavirus in Africa is unknown, such as the number of cases and the mortality rate. Malaria, which kills 400,000 Africans each year, and coronavirus share many of the same symptoms in the early stages of the disease, complicating diagnoses, especially with a shortage of coronavirus test kits. Lack of knowledge feeds rumor and can promote panic, as has been seen during Ebola outbreaks, where health workers were attacked by local people.