COVID-19 in Africa: a grim perspective

The World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa announced that up to 190.000 people could die of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic. This number is one of the outcomes of modelling studies on the 47 countries of the WHO African region, which excludes Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco. 

The news has made headlines and has set off alarm bells, as it should. On second thought, the numbers compare favourably with Europe and the United States. Even more so if one realizes that the WHO has taken a worst case approach, assuming that no containment measures would be taken and that the current, precarious health systems would not be improved (on average, African countries report 9 intensive care unit beds per 1 million people).

As per May 7, 35,000 infections and 1200 deaths have been officially reported in the WHO African Region, on a total population of over 1 billion. Social and environmental factors, and a younger population are believed to lead to lower transmission rates (implying the virus will linger around for longer) and lower mortality rates in Africa than elsewhere. Still, assuming a relatively low mortality rate of 0.25% and assuming half of the population will become infected, one arrives at 1,25 million deaths, around 7 times the number predicted for the first year.

Aren’t these WHO-estimates too optimistic? The study is currently being reviewed at the British Medical Journal – Global Health.

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