Four lessons the West can learn from Africa’s COVID response

by Joseph Opoku Gakpo

May 10, 2021

As news media reported that global COVID-19 deaths hit the 3 million mark, this question struck me: How has Africa defied (at least, thus far) the “doomsday” predictions that millions on the continent would die from the coronavirus disease?

Modelling that the Imperial College of London conducted for the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Africa forecast in April 2020 that Africa would record at least 300,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year, with worst-case scenarios predicting some 3.3 million Africans would succumb to the virus before the end of 2020. The projection wasn’t far-fetched, considering the continent has some of the world’s weakest health systems and most dilapidated healthcare infrastructure. Additionally, the number of doctors per capita is among the lowest in the world.

Yet Africa has managed to defy every rule in the data analysis book and proved logical scientific projections wrong — at least, for now. Certainly, the continent is not out of the woods yet. The battle is not over, and there are chances the “prophecy” is only defying the deadlines given it and is not necessarily false. But when you consider that Africa has recorded 117,411 COVID-19 deaths, representing roughly 3.9 percent of the global total, though it is home to about 17 percent of the world’s population, it’s clear that the continent has conducted itself well.

Unproven claims attribute it to Africa’s warm tropical climate, a high vaccination rate for childhood diseases or even the grace of God. Others argue that the official fatality figures are probably not accurate. But to be fair, I think the African people deserve at least some credit for their relative successes in the Covid-19 fight. I’ve identified four factors that I believe helped keep the death rate low and offer lessons that can be learned in the West.

1. Swift government response

Even before a majority of countries on the continent recorded their first cases of COVID-19, everyone went on a full-scale alert. Strict control measures, including international travel restrictions, school closures, cancellation of public events and limits on gatherings, were imposed. A study published in the Lancet shows that about 72 percent of African countries rolled out their first batch of at least five strict COVID-19 control measures approximately 15 days before reporting their first cases. The negative consequences on their economies were dire and some governments met with mounting criticism that they had overreacted. I don’t agree. They only responded tactically. In a battle, when dealing with an unknown enemy you cannot predict, you shut down to strategize and then fight back from a position of strength. That wasn’t the case on other continents like Europe and Southern America.

2. Covid-19 was treated as a national crisis, not a political football

We love politics in Africa. But we love our food and our families even more dearly. And so, when COVID-19 led death to our doorstep, we threw away what our political leanings inspired us to believe and confronted it as a potential killer. The same cannot be said of how things panned out in the United States, for example. A survey by the Pew Research Center in July 2020 revealed the wide gap between how Republicans and Democrats viewed COVID’s threat to the health system. Mind you, the extent to which people saw COVID as a threat informs the likelihood that they will adhere to safety protocols, including wearing masks, social distancing and stay-at-home measures, among others.

The survey revealed that while 85 percent of people who leaned Democratic saw coronavirus as a major threat to the health of the US population, only 46 percent of Republican leaners held the same view. Another 45 percent of Republican leaners saw it only as a minor threat. Some analyses attributed Republican leaners not seeing COVID-19 as a major health threat to their reluctance to shut down the economy, possibly resulting in low approval ratings for the GOP and President. As Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, said in an interview with, “The national conversation about how we behave during this pandemic has been so colored by the partisan divide that it’s becoming impossible to talk rationally about the risks we are and are not willing to tolerate.”

COVID-19 was a political issue in Africa as well. Political opponents used the pandemic to tear each other down and score political points. But when it came to a choice between scoring political points and saving lives, they chose the latter. In my country, Ghana, a new law giving the president of the republic enhanced powers to enforce restrictions was fiercely challenged by the political opposition employing every imaginable strategy. But in the end, they allowed it to pass so the government could maintain control. Thus far, fewer than 800 people have died from COVID-19 in a country of about 30 million people, according to official counts.

3. In Africa, leaders led, or at least tried to

Aside from Tanzania, leaders on the African continent led their nations through the fight against the pandemic, as is expected of leaders. They did not lead from behind. Leaders publicly supported measures by health officials to slow the spread of the virus even if they disagreed with the tactics because they were focused on the public good. So, citizens were not getting mixed messages or encouragement to defy public health advice. That obviously made a lot of difference. Compare this to the US, for example where it wasn’t until July 11, 2020 — three months after public health agencies recommended the use of face covers or masks — that the President started wearing masks publicly.

4. Africa’s COVID-19 response was better coordinated

In the US, hundreds of skirmishes occurred across the country as local, state and federal entities disagreed on plans for responding to COVID-19. In just one example, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, was sued by the Republican governor after imposing restrictions on businesses and mandating mask use. In times of peace and tranquility, this is evidence of how great a democracy should function. But in times of war and pandemic, such fights are distractions. In Africa, when the president directs, everyone falls in line. That can be negative because presidents sometimes get it wrong. But it seems like that has been key to helping Africa remain focused on containment efforts, successfully slowing the spread of the coronavirus.