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In Africa, Lack of Coronavirus Records Raises Fear of 'Silent Epidemic'

A boy stands in front of a graffiti promoting the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2020. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
A boy stands in front of a graffiti promoting the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya, May 22, 2020. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
In Africa, Lack of Coronavirus Records Raises Fear of 'Silent Epidemic'
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When the novel coronavirus hit Tanzania in April, President John Magufuli called for three days of prayer to ask for God’s protection. A month later, he declared victory over the virus and invited travelers to return to his nation.

His decision to reopen concerned the World Health Organization (WHO) because there was almost no information on the spread of the virus in Tanzania. The country is home to 55 million people and has one of the weakest health care systems in East Africa.

In many African nations there is a lack of good, trustworthy information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Some governments do not want to admit that the epidemic exists. Other nations cannot do testing because they are so affected by poverty and conflict.

The Reuters news agency examined the latest information about the disease. It found that Africa, with a population of 1.3 billion people, had over 493,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 11,600 deaths. To understand these low numbers, Latin America has half the number of people, but 2.9 million cases and 129,900 deaths.

The official numbers make it appear that COVID-19 has affected relatively few people in Africa, but the truth may be much worse.

WHO special envoy Samba Sow warned on May 25 of a possible “silent epidemic” if testing was not given a high priority.

By July 7, 4,200 tests per million people had been carried out across the continent. That information comes from a Reuters study of reports from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares with averages of 7,650 in Asia and 74,255 in Europe.

Many health workers, diplomats and local officials told Reuters that tests were not available in most African countries. They also said that some governments will do just about anything to hide their infection rates, even if it means they will lose money from international health organizations.

“We cannot help a country against its own will,” Michel Yao told Reuters. He is head of emergency operations for the WHO in Africa.

Trouble in Tanzania

When Tanzania confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 16, the government reportedly set up a group to work with the WHO, foreign embassies and international aid agencies. The group never met again, said two people who were involved.

“It’s very clear the government does not want any information about the state of COVID in the country,” said one aid official. Like many of those questioned by Reuters for this story, the official asked not to be identified for fear of having problems with political leaders.

Both Tanzania’s health minister and a government spokesman did not answer telephone calls or emailed questions about the crisis. The spokesman had earlier denied he was keeping information about the disease from the public.

Tanzania has not published nationwide coronavirus numbers since May 8. At that time, it had recorded 509 cases and 21 deaths.

Tanzania has received some $40 million from international organizations to fight coronavirus, two diplomats told Reuters. But it missed out on “tens of millions” more, another official said.

By mid-May, the government decided to ease public health restrictions. Yet doctors and diplomats said the disease was far from contained.

The United Nations agency cannot force countries to share information. In late April, WHO officials expressed concern about the spread of the virus in Burundi. The country quickly expelled four WHO experts.

Burundi was one of the first African countries to close its borders in March. But the country saw a growth in suspected cases after large groups gathered in the days before the May 20 elections, a health care provider said. He also did not want his name used in this article.

Others countries simply cannot share information because they do not have any. Their medical systems are too broken to gather reasonable numbers.

“Even at the best of times, collecting quality data from countries is not easy, said John Nkengasong. He is director of the Africa CDC.

For example, Islamist militants and ethnic militias operate across large parts of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. It is impossible for governments there to know how many have the virus.

Many other nations have very little ability to perform tests beyond their capitals, said Franck Ale of the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres - Doctors Without Borders.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

epidemic – n. a contagious disease that effects a lot of people

tourists – n. those people who visit a place for pleasure

data – n. information or numbers used by experts

envoy – n. the representative of a country or organization

priority – n. of high importance