Africa’s total reported death toll from Covid-19 is approaching 100,000 on Thursday, a fraction of those reported on other continents but rising fast as a second wave of infections overwhelms hospitals.
The continent’s reported deaths, at 99,800, compare favourably with North America, which has registered more than 500,000, and Europe, which is approaching 900,000, a Reuters tally shows.
But deaths are rising sharply across Africa, driven by its southern region, especially economic powerhouse SA, which accounts for nearly half.
SA was ravaged by a second wave caused by a more contagious variant that has jammed up casualty wards.
“The increased number [of infections] has led to many severe cases and some of the countries really found it quite difficult to cope,” Richard Mihigo, coordinator of the immunisation programme at the World Health Organisation’s Africa office, told Reuters.
“We have seen some countries getting to their limit in terms of oxygen supply, which has got a really negative impact in terms of case management for severe cases.”
Mihigo said the rise in deaths was pronounced in countries near SA such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, raising the possibility that the 501Y.V2 variant identified in SA late in 2020 had spread through the Southern Africa region — although more genomic sequencing needs to be carried out to prove that.
International aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) this month called for urgent vaccine distributions in Southern Africa to counter the spread of the new variant, as most African countries have lagged richer Western nations in launching mass vaccination programmes.
Reuters data show Africa’s case fatality rate is now at about 2.6%, higher than the global average of 2.3%, and marginally up on the 2.4% rate after the first wave of infections — which at the time compared favourably with other continents.
Experts caution against reading too much into the data — the real toll may be much higher or lower.
Then again, in some cases Africa’s low testing rates could inflate its true case fatality rate (CFR), said Prof Francisca Mutapi, an infectious disease expert at the University of Edinburgh.
“If deaths being registered as Covid-19 deaths are not necessarily contingent on a positive test … as is the case in SA, then this can drive up CFR,” she said.
Even with these caveats acknowledged, African countries look like they are struggling with Covid-19 more than in 2020.
“Are we counting all the deaths on the continent? No … but most people on the continent do know somebody who has died of Covid-19 during this second wave,” Africa CDC director John Nkengasong told reporters last week.
“Hospitals are being overwhelmed due to health systems that are fragile.”