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Updated Feb 20, 2020

Official figures indicate that the coronavirus named COVID-19 has infected at least 70,000 people and killed 1,800, with cases being discovered in 29 other countries after originating in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Egypt recently confirmed that it had quarantined a patient infected with the virus, the first one on the African continent. With more cases likely on the way, owing in part to intensive trade and migration between China and Africa, the capacity for Africa to respond effectively to the virus is beset by a number of obstacles.

First, there is the issue of trust. During the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, widespread distrust of public health institutions, especially those run by foreigners, caused many to not heed health advisories or visit medical facilities to have early symptoms treated. Corruption in public-service entities dissuades many Africans from putting their trust in these institutions or makes it more difficult to access healthcare services. Surveys in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa show that Africans place more trust in religious and traditional leaders, meaning any effective virus prevention protocols will need to include these community leaders.

African politicians and their constituents are also largely preoccupied with short-term results. Budget allocations are skewed in favor of health issues such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and child health. Success in treating these ailments is much more noticeable, which political parties can take credit for to shore up both trust and public support. Spending money for outbreak prevention, conversely, is less enticing precisely because there may not be an immediate payoff. Should an outbreak never come to the country in question, the allocation of funds will be seen as a waste.

African heads of state and health officials must also weigh expectations from their citizens against how donor countries may react to African-led efforts to combat growing epidemics. Western media and international bodies like the World Health Organisation tend to portray African health agencies and healthcare providers as lacking the knowledge and capacity to address such health issues. It is true that some African countries lack the necessary resources, and even the most developed African nations struggle to reach remote rural communities, but agencies such as the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have risen to the task as regional leaders in tackling Ebola and other health concerns.

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