SEATTLE, Washington — People in developed countries often overlook the public health successes of developing countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those in developed countries have hailed New Zealand and Germany for their successful virus containment efforts. Meanwhile, they have generally ignored countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have effectively contained COVID-19 outbreaks as well. Due to efficient government responses to COVID-19 and African Union initiatives, sub-Saharan Africa has avoided what outsiders predicted would be a much greater public health catastrophe. These countries have led a successful COVID-19 response effort, having a strong positive impact on the health of their population and region as a whole.
African Governments’ Early, Successful COVID-19 Response
When the coronavirus initially spread to Africa, African governments responded quickly. Most countries restricted international travel in March, imposing early and aggressive lockdowns. In fact, the government of Djibouti entirely ended international travel before the country had recorded any cases. Governments closed down schools and large public gatherings, working early on to minimize the virus’s spread.
Governments across sub-Saharan Africa began to identify efficient ways to tackle outbreaks. Rwanda began pooling its COVID-19 tests early on, allowing laboratories to quickly process multiple tests at once. The government has also been recognized for its aggressive enforcement of COVID-19 rules. The government used drones to take photos of unlicensed gatherings and remind citizens through loudspeakers to follow public health guidelines.
Law enforcement officials have arrested over 70,000 people for breaking rules, although most detainees have been released after several days without formal charges. Because of this aggressive lockdown, the government has kept the number of COVID-19 deaths to twenty-nine as of September 30th.
The government of Mauritius, an island nation in East Africa, has led a successful COVID-19 response as well. Airport employees were directed to screen foreign arrivals at airports starting as early as late January. The government closed the country’s borders on March 19th, a day after Mauritius’s first COVID-19 cases had been detected. Within the next week, they had imposed a lockdown.
The government set up several technological COVID-19 resources for citizens including a hotline and an app that explains recent health guidelines and rules. Government officials held daily press conferences to inform citizens. As of late September, only ten people in Mauritius have died from the virus.
The AU’s COVID-19 Initiatives
The AU’s public health agency, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has led the continent’s coordinated campaign to fight the virus. The Africa CDC quickly launched the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, a technological platform that links personal protective equipment providers with buyers. The platform was developed with help from the AU Special Envoy Strive Masiyiwa, a successful businessman.
Africa CDC began to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19 in January, during early reports about the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, China. After quickly creating an emergency task force, Africa CDC organized weekly digital meetings with government and health officials in AU member states.
Africa CDC released press briefings and uploaded data from member states to a shared network. The organization met with health ministers from across the continent in February and created the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19. Thereafter, African countries could coordinate their strategies and partner with nearby health agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Outside Predictions Underestimated Africa’s Response to COVID-19
Outside experts did not predict African countries’ successful COVID-19 response. In fact, foreign media coverage foresaw a dangerous public health crisis in Africa once COVID-19 hit. News outlets warned of an overwhelming death toll and an inability for African health services to deal with patients. The U.N. cautioned in April that Africa would probably face 300,000 to 3 million deaths from the virus. As of October 15th, there have been 37,000 deaths.
These negative predictions display a widespread dismissal of health systems in developing countries. By assuming that African countries wouldn’t be able to deal with COVID-19, many outsiders overlooked sub-Saharan Africa’s inherent strengths. For example, one of the reasons for Africa’s low mortality rates is that health agencies in Africa have adapted to virus outbreaks. Fatal outbreaks such as Ebola have prepared the continent to react to large-scale threats to public health and turn quickly to aggressive preventive measures.
One of the most prominent reasons for sub-Saharan Africa’s success has been the efficacy of government response. African governments enforced testing and safety measures that slowed the virus’s spread early on. The AU assisted governments by improving access to PPE and coordinating government responses across borders. Due to this successful COVID-19 response, African countries have avoided the major loss of life that has plagued many developed countries and paved the way for easier health recovery. These successes serve as a reminder of developing countries’ ability to offer public health services and exceed outside expectations.
– Sarah Brinsley