COVID-19 in Africa: Vulnerabilities and Assets

Not only did the COVID-19 disease arrive on Africa’s shores (and at its airports) later than in Asia, Europe, and North America, but for months the numbers of infections and deaths also appeared to remain relatively low. As of early August, the continent had experienced more than 1 million confirmed cases and 23,000 deaths, though these figures were increasing rapidly. At this point, the causes behind Africa’s comparatively low initial numbers are not completely clear. One reason may be that early and decisive responses on the part of many African governments prevented the virus from gaining an easy foothold. But Africa, somewhat paradoxically, may also have benefited from a range of structural factors, such as the continent’s relatively limited international exposure, its relatively low rates of intra- and inter-state air travel, a generally hot and humid climate, relatively lower levels of population density and urbanization, and its substantially younger populations. It may have also profited from cultural factors, such as the fact that older people tend to remain with their families, rather than being institutionalized in retirement homes, though this also has consequences for residential density, or that it has a more collectivist, less individualistic culture, which, according to recent research, may make COVID-19 interventions more effective. If, as these events suggest, early interventions in African countries successfully erected a wall that kept the virus at bay, albeit temporarily, how well prepared are these countries if and when the virus penetrates their initial defenses? A wealth of Afrobarometer survey data suggests that Africans are especially vulnerable, in part due to lack of access to clean water and adequate health care. In this paper, we attempt to take the issue of vulnerability a step further by developing a more fine-grained approach, using insights from public health to examine different dimensions and components of vulnerability.