How’s West Africa Doing With COVID-19?
What’s going on Africa? I tried answering that, but it’s a stupid question. Africa is a continent. We need to zoom in a bit. What’s going on in West Africa?
West Africa stretches from Senegal to Nigeria. Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria) have over a dozen direct flights to Europe between them and connections to China through the Middle East, so they’ve been at risk, and indeed they have had infections for months.
The region is home to over 375 million people. It is hot here, which gives us some marginal advantages, but nowhere near enough to just stop an outbreak. There are numerous outbreaks in hot places like Singapore, India, Indonesia — Ra will not strike COVID down for us. Public health responses are still required.
But before that, let’s look a bit closer.
Throughout this I’m relying on data from OurWorldInData, which in turn gets it from the European CDC. Some countries have reliable data and some don’t, this is true in Africa but also in places like America. Be critical, but note that I’m just comparing using the data we have.
How Many People Have Died?
I’ll start with deaths because that’s a bit more reliable than cases. Note that death counts are off in every country, except maybe global leaders like Mongolia. Most of us simply living (and dying) in the fog of pandemic.
West Africa has 540 reported deaths total, over their entire epidemic. This would sadly be known as ‘yesterday’ in a backwards region like Western Europe.
Given this sense of scale, let’s look at how different responses are doing. Nigeria has nearly 200 million people and The Gambia 2.3, so it doesn’t make sense to compare them directly. What are the death tolls like per capita?
So here you can see that the epidemic has hit Liberia and Sierra Leone hard, and that Guinea-Bissau is rapidly catching up. Nigeria is, relatively to population, doing about the same as Ghana.
How Many Cases Are There?
Now back to the totals. If we look at cases, we see something different. Suddenly Ghana is up there with Nigeria again, but this seems unusual. The death rates can’t be that different. What’s going on?
How’s Their Testing?
The difference seems to be testing. For a population 10x smaller than Nigeria’s, Ghana is doing 6x MORE testing. Ghana has actually tested more than the United States did (per capita) during the vital first two weeks of its epidemic. An advanced public health system like Ghana’s was able to save thousands of lives that more chaotic America lost.
Let’s look at the testing data per capita to see exactly what’s going on.
So now you see a different picture, where Ghana and Senegal are clearly ahead in suppression efforts because they’re testing more. Note that the other countries aren’t showing up because they haven’t released info that OurWorldInData can process. They are testing.
When Are They In Time?
When matters more than anything in a pandemic. An early test is worth thousands later, and early action saves lives. When are these deaths happening in time? This graph shows deaths all aligned, starting from day zero of each epidemic.
Places like Senegal, Ghana, and the Gambia are a few months on from the recorded start, while Nigeria Guinea-Bissau and Sierra Leone may have more ahead of them.
Note that the cases chart looks very different, but we’ve seen how cases is distorted by testing differences.
How Do They Compare To The World?
Finally, let’s compare the West African outbreaks to the rest of the world.
So, compared to everywhere else, the West African outbreak is a flat line. COVID-19 can hook it up really quickly, but as we’ve seen, West Africa is already weeks or months in. They have a good fighting chance.
Who Can We Learn From?
So this is actually my background research which I’m thinking through out loud. My real question has to do with this statement from the UN Secretary-General.
“Most African governments and organizations took in time very brave prevention measures which provide a lesson for some developed nations that did not.”
My question is who, exactly, can we learn from. In West Africa that seems to be, based on testing and transparency really, Ghana and Senegal. Ghana, however, is lifting is lockdown now and both of these epidemics could still grow. So we’ll look closer at them in the next episode.
To play with this data yourself, just go to OurWorldInData. I’ve preloaded the link with all the West African nations.