Ninety-eight days. That is how long it took for confirmed coronavirus infections to reach the 100,000 mark in Africa. But when it came to those cases doubling up to 200,000, it took just 18 days.
The figures were cited by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday as it warned that the coronavirus pandemic on the continent is “accelerating”, with the virus spreading to rural areas after international travellers brought it to major cities.
“Even though these cases in Africa account for less than 3 percent of the global total, it’s clear that the pandemic is accelerating,” WHO Africa head Matshidiso Moeti told a media briefing.
Moeti said community transmission had begun in more than half of Africa’s 54 countries, calling that “a serious sign”.
More than 5,500 coronavirus-related deaths have been confirmed so far across the continent.
As the virus, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December of last year, swept across the globe, many experts had warned of a possible dire effect on countries in Africa, which contains many of the world’s poorest countries, weak healthcare infrastructure, and millions of people displaced by conflict.
However, that prediction has yet to bear out, with other parts of the world emerging as the epicentres of the pandemic. The WHO said there was currently no indication that large numbers of severe cases and deaths were being missed in Africa’s overall tally, nor has the virus caused significant infections in refugee camps.
Some have attributed the more muted outbreak to the continent’s relatively young population and the fact that many countries moved quickly to establish “point of entry” screening measures in the wake of the Ebola epidemic in West and Central Africa.
Moeti said lower numbers of international travellers arriving to spread the virus, quick reactions by African leaders, and the weather could also have played a role in lessening the blow.
Ten countries account for most infections
Ten countries are currently driving Africa’s epidemic, accounting for 75 percent of the roughly 207,600 cases confirmed so far, Moeti said.
In South Africa, the worst-hit country on the continent with more than 58,500 infections and some 1,200 deaths, a high number of daily cases and deaths are being reported in two provinces – the more densely populated Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, and the more sparse Eastern Cape.
“Specifically in the Western Cape where we are seeing a majority of cases and deaths, the trend seem to be similar to what was happening in Europe and in the US,” Moeti said.
Shortages of test kits remain a challenge on the continent, Moeti added, and until there is an effective vaccine, Africa is likely to see a steady increase with hotspots requiring strong public health and social distancing measures.
Reporting from Abuja, Nigeria, the third worst-hit country on the continent after South Africa and Egypt, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris said a lagging healthcare system and fighting with armed groups in the north makes the situation particularly precarious.
“Two days ago, Nigeria recorded its highest number of infections with over 600 cases, now taking the total to more than 14,000 cases,” he said. “But it’s difficult to know exactly how many people have the virus in this country, because the testing capacity of many hospitals and health clinics is still very low.”
“You also have issues of insurgencies in the north of the country. You have millions of people displaced by conflict, either Boko Haram, ethnic fighting, communal fighting, clashes between farmers and cattle herders in the rest of the country,” he said.
In Dakar, Senegal, which has confirmed over 4,700 cases and 55 deaths, Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque added that fears have grown as the government moves to reopen the country.
“There’s real concern that the worst is yet to come because the government has decided to ease restrictions allowing people to mingle with one another,” he said.