For now, African countries have managed to dodge the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact to the country is mainly concentrated in several North African countries, and the number of confirmed cases is just over 18,000.
However, concern is growing among public health authorities that the number of infections in Africa could explode into the millions in the coming weeks.
In a report released Friday, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa warned that “between 300,000 and 3.3 million African people could lose their lives as a direct result of COVID-19, depending on the intervention measures taken to stop the spread.”
Across the densest African cities, the layout and infrastructure of overcrowded neighborhoods will make it difficult to contain the spread of infection. The UNECA said the majority of residents in urban areas do not have reliable access to hand-washing facilities.
Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa, warned that coronavirus cases in African countries could jump from thousands to 10 million within three to six months. However, Yao also emphasized that worst-case scenarios for the Ebola outbreak did not play out because people changed their behavior in time.
“This is still to be fine-tuned,” said Yao. “It’s difficult to make a long-term estimation because the context changes too much and also public health measures, when they are fully implemented, they can actually have an impact.”
Major quarantine restrictions would slow the coronavirus, but could also crush the economy and drive millions of people to extreme poverty.
Experts at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health are asking for a coordinated global effort during the pandemic. In a perspective piece written for the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers urge countries around the world to “take concrete steps to assist Africa in staying ahead of the curve, even as they confront their own epidemics.”
“When HIV spread like wildfire across the African continent, it took decades for the world to mobilize a response,” wrote the researchers. “Epidemics know no borders, and success in controlling the epidemic in any one country will be limited if epidemics continue to rage elsewhere. Today, we have the chance to avoid a repeat of history. Africans are doing their part. Now is the time for us to do ours.”