Six months after the COVID-19 outbreak first started, Africa accounted for only 1.5% of the documented cases (Bruce-Lockhart, 2020). Some reasons are structural: Only 40% of the population is urbanized – compared with 55% globally and 80% in the OECD. This geographical dispersion makes it harder for the virus to spread. Moreover, the continent is young – only 3% of the population is 65 years of age or older, compared with a 9% global average and 17% in the OECD. Given that the virus disproportionally affects older people, this matters.
The spread of the disease is accelerating, and the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts a prolonged trajectory over several years for Africa (“New WHO estimates: Up to 190 000 people could die of COVID-19 in Africa if not controlled”, 2020). Still, the continent has been less severely affected than was feared. I suggest three reasons why.
Much as it is disadvantaged by its weak healthcare systems, Africans also benefited from lessons learned in responding to earlier epidemics, e.g. the 2014-2018 Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the ongoing Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) epidemic that spread continent-wide from Kinshasa in the late 1970s. Coordinated continental leadership facilitated the implementation of those learnings. Moreover, the collectivist culture of Africans where the wellbeing of the group tends to take precedence over individual freedoms supported compliance, even when it meant the loss of livelihoods.