Sunday, January 29, 2023

Scientists Baffled and Alarmed Africa Avoided COVID Disaster

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – At a busy market in a poor town outside Harare this week, Nyasha Ndu kept his mask in his pocket as hundreds of other people, mostly without masks, hustled to buy and sell fruits and vegetables displayed on wooden tables. and plastic sheets. As in much of Zimbabwe, the coronavirus is fast fading as political rallies, concerts and home gatherings are back.

“COVID-19 is gone, when was the last time you heard of anyone who died from COVID-19?” – said Ndu. “The mask is designed to protect my pocket,” he said. “The police are demanding bribes, so I lose money if I don’t wear a mask.” Earlier this week, Zimbabwe reported just 33 new cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths, in line with the continent’s recent decline in incidence, where World Health Organization data show infections have been declining since July.

When the coronavirus first emerged last year, health officials feared a pandemic would sweep across Africa, killing millions. While it is still unclear what the ultimate casualties of COVID-19 will be, this catastrophic scenario has yet to materialize in Zimbabwe or much of the continent.

Scientists emphasize that getting accurate data on COVID-19, especially in African countries with fragmented surveillance, is extremely difficult, and warn that declining trends in coronavirus can be easily reversed.

But something “mysterious” is happening in Africa that is baffling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, head of the department of global health at Columbia University. “Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the US, but somehow they seem to be doing better,” she said.

Less than 6% of people in Africa are vaccinated. For several months, WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.

Some researchers say the continent’s younger population – an average age of 20 compared to around 43 in Western Europe – in addition to slower urbanization and a tendency to spend time outdoors, may have saved it from the more deadly effects of the virus so far. since. Several studies are investigating whether there could be other explanations, including genetic causes or susceptibility to other diseases.

Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics at the University of Redimer in Nigeria, said authorities are used to containing outbreaks even without vaccines, and expressed appreciation for the wide network of local health workers.

“It’s not always about how much money you have or how advanced your hospitals are,” he said.

Devi Sridhar, head of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said African leaders did not deserve the credit for their swift action, citing Mali’s decision to close its borders before COVID-19 even arrived.

“I think there is a different cultural approach in Africa where these countries have approached COVID with a sense of humility because they have experienced things like Ebola, polio and malaria,” Sridhar said.

In recent months, the coronavirus has hit South Africa and is estimated to have killed more than 89,000 people there, the largest number of deaths on the continent to date. But so far, African authorities, while acknowledging there may be gaps, have not reported the huge number of unexpected deaths that could be attributed to COVID. WHO data show that deaths in Africa account for only 3% of the global total. By comparison, deaths in the Americas and Europe account for 46% and 29%.

In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the government has so far recorded nearly 3,000 deaths out of a population of 200 million. In the United States, many deaths are recorded every two to three days.

The low numbers are giving relief to Nigerians like Opemipo Are, a 23-year-old resident of Abuja. “They said there would be corpses on the streets and stuff, but nothing like that happened,” she said.

Oyewale Tomori, a virologist from Nigeria and a member of several WHO advisory groups, suggested that Africa may not even need as many vaccines as the West. The idea, while controversial, he said is being seriously debated among African scientists – reminiscent of a proposal made by British officials last March to allow COVID-19 to freely infect populations to boost immunity.

However, this does not mean that vaccines are not needed in Africa.

“We need to complete a full vaccination to prepare for the next wave,” said Salim Abdul Karim, an epidemiologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa who previously advised the South African government on COVID-19. “If you look at what is happening in Europe, the likelihood that more cases will get here is very high.”

The impact of the coronavirus has also been relatively minor in poor countries like Afghanistan, where experts predicted outbreaks amid ongoing conflict that could prove catastrophic.

Hashmat Arifi, a 23-year-old student from Kabul, said he had not seen anyone wearing a mask for several months, including at a recent wedding he attended with hundreds of guests. In his university classrooms, more than 20 students usually sit without masks in cramped quarters.

“I haven’t seen corona cases lately,” Arifi said. To date, Afghanistan has recorded some 7,200 deaths among 39 million people, although few trials were carried out during the conflict and the actual number of cases and deaths is unknown.

Back in Zimbabwe, doctors were grateful for the respite from COVID-19, but feared it was only temporary.

“People need to remain very vigilant,” warned Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Zimbabwe Association of Private Practitioners and Dentists. He fears another wave of coronavirus will hit Zimbabwe next month. “Complacency is what will destroy us, because we can be taken by surprise.”


Cheng reported from London. Raheem Fayez from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Chinedu Assad in Lagos contributed to this report.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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