No, I would no longer rather be back in Africa

No, I would no longer rather be back in Africa

  • Many scoffed at my expectation that Africa would come through 2020 relatively unscathed by Covid itself
  • Sadly, the other half of my view is now also unfolding, with 2021 set to be a much more challenging year for Africa
  • Covid will continue to smoulder in Africa for many years to come, damaging tourism and exacting a human toll

As Covid-19 gripped the world in March 2020, I reflected on my experience over the preceding six months traveling overland from Cape Town to Kigali and concluded that I’d rather be back in Africa. By the end of June, as lockdowns were being lifted globally, I revisited the position of Africa with better data and a better understanding of Covid. I concluded that I’d still rather be back in Africa, but maybe not in 2021. Now, in 2021, the data are bearing out my view, and Africa appears set to suffer more than other regions.

While I was right that Africa would survive Covid in 2020…

Before looking at why Africa will suffer in 2021, I’d like to review why Africa did so much better than many expected in 2020. When the world faced Covid with a similar lack of resources, Africa had several inbuilt advantages to help it reduce and delay the impact of the virus:

  • A young population means that those who are highly vulnerable to Covid constitute a much smaller share of the population than in many other countries;

  • Limited indoor spaces and limited intercity and intracontinental travel slowed the spread of the virus; and

  • Past experience dealing with epidemics, like Ebola, Tuberculosis and AIDS, meant that many African countries had public health experience and institutions that allowed them to respond more quickly than many other countries by closing their borders, tracing contacts and initiating lockdowns.

Some of the measures worked, while delays in testing and the high number of asymptomatic cases rendered contract tracing ineffective. Fortunately for Africa, the comorbidities of Covid tended to be illnesses of wealth, like heart disease, that are prevalent across many developed and middle-income countries rather than those of poverty. Indeed, in 2020 Africa arguably suffered more from the global economic collapse than it did from the virus itself.

…it will struggle through 2021…

While Africa’s inbuilt advantages helped it survive 2020, many of them slowed, rather than stopped, the progress of the virus. As we move into 2021, Africa is now experiencing this deferred peak as a virus that has comprehensively swept through many countries continues to spread through Africa. Caseloads are still low by international standards—and are likely to remain so given Africa’s young population—but they are already high enough to risk overwhelming Africa’s weak health systems.

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