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Against forecasts, COVID-19 in Africa remains a puzzle

Against early forecasts that COVID-19 infection and mortality rates in Africa might spell mind-boggling catastrophe, the pandemic on the continent remains a puzzle that Africa Centre for Disease Control (ACDC) has not yet found answers.

Despite over 4.8 million infections, largely believed to be an underestimation of the scale of exposure to the virus, the mortality rate still does not represent a picture of the predicted devastation for the continent, John Nkengasong, director, ACDC, said speaking at the 2021 Mo Ibrahim Forum.

Serologic surveys conducted in some African countries such as Nigeria for instance show that at least 20 percent of the population in Lagos has been exposed, yet deaths barely over 2,000 country-wide and 130,000 in Africa.

This is unlike India where the virus surprised the country and the devastation has been very visible. So, there is a paradox or puzzle between the last number of people that are potentially infected and the relatively low rate of mortality.

However, the director fears that the pandemic will begin to normalise deaths as more comparisons are made with the rest of the world.

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“Here I am referring to 130,000 people as if they were 130 people. No. When Ebola hit West Africa and within two years, about 12,000 people died, we said never again. And here we are four or five years later with a raging pandemic that has claimed so much more in Africa,” he said, raising fresh concerns over vaccine shortage on the continent.

The persisting shortage of vaccines in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa at a time when hospitals in some Western countries are being relieved of COVID-19 cases took the centre stage as African leaders deliberated on health systems strengthening at the forum.

The conference, which saw a review of governments’ responses to the pandemic, gave a renewed push to tackling the challenge of health inequalities amplified by vaccine shortage.

Nkengasong again urged countries with surplus doses to offer them for redistribution at speed and scale, saying “Africa will definitely move towards the endemicity of this virus on the continent, and that does not bode well for our collective global health security.”

Over the last week, the continent has seen an average increase of 14 percent in case, according to Africa CDC. Some countries are tilting slowly towards the third wave and others are battling to level the second wave.

It is also likely that in the next coming months, some countries that have gone through the third wave will begin to edge towards the third wave, the director said, noting that the public health measures in place had helped and avoided the devastation earlier predicted.

Making the case for vaccine equity, Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general, World Health Organisation, said although Africa had not yet seen the same scale of devastation from the COVID-19 pandemic as some parts of the world.

So far, Africa has administered just over 31 million COVID-19 vaccines doses or 2 percent of the global total, he stated, noting that the final solution will be to build health capacities, not only for COVID-19 vaccines but for other vaccines.

“Africa has not escaped COVID-19 and we cannot let down our guard. What has happened in many other parts of the world can also happen in Africa.

“WHO is working to bring immediate solutions for equitable vaccine distribution. But it is clear that Africa cannot rely solely on imported vaccines from the rest of the world,” Ghebreyesus said.

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