A fragile healthcare system and a continent facing several pre-existing ailments, the coronavirus looks set to further strain resources.
Africa was initially spared the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, even as the outbreak brought much of Europe and the US to its knees.
Earlier this week, however, Lesotho confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, thereby ensuring a grim yet small milestone for the continent, with the virus now present in all 54 countries.
The tragedy for Lesotho is that the coronavirus outbreak threatens to have a devastating impact in a country where one in four people are living with HIV.
The World Health Organization (WHO) only recently warned that efforts to prevent the spread of HIV could be undermined by efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“If efforts are not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500 000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021,” said the world health body.
Healthcare in many sub-Sarahan countries could be overwhelmed by an epidemic of the size the US is facing and still struggling to contain.
In many sub-Saharan countries, more than 50 percent of the region’s health spending is financed as an out-of-pocket expense.
As the world economy goes into a slowdown and potentially into a global recession, the fallout for Africa’s economy and living standards could be dramatic, particularly because most African nations lack a widespread social safety net.
Lockdown orders, which have become a feature of tackling the coronavirus pandemic, could be catastrophic for millions of people that need to go to work and pay for medication.
The director-general of the WHO described the impact that the coronavirus could have on HIV patients as, “the terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history.”
Africa has 23 million people suffering from HIV/AIDS comprising 69 percent of the global total of 34 million people.
One virus amongst many
The current number of coronavirus infections reported in Africa is almost at 80,000 and the death rate stands at just over 2,500 people.
The numbers, however, could be much higher owing to a nation’s capacity to test, detect and trace carriers of the virus.
Many West African countries have fresh memories of the Ebola outbreak that struck the region in 2014 resulting in thousands of deaths and disruption to their socioeconomic life.
The decades-old fight against malaria, on the other hand, is ongoing against an enemy that replicates itself in the millions.
Fear of contracting the virus has led to a halt in deliveries of anti-mosquito nets as well as spraying campaigns tackling its spread.
“Suspending such campaigns will leave many vulnerable populations at greater risk of malaria, particularly young children and pregnant women,” said the WHO.
The global health agency has urged countries prone to yearly malaria outbreaks to learn the lessons of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, where attempts to deal with one virus led to increased incidences of malaria.
In a report in April, the WHO said a worst-case scenario which sees countries entering total lockdown and the complete halt of dealing with malaria could result in 769,000 deaths, almost double the 2018 figures.
Even if African countries take measures to continue dealing with malaria, they could fall hostage to supply chain disruption with the key tools necessary to fight the disease coming from outside.
There are, however, glimmers of hope for the continent.
More than 60 percent of the continent’s 1.3 billion people are under the age of 25, which could be one reason why the death rate is still relatively low.
Many African countries have also clamped down hard to control the spread of the virus, with countries like South Africa, Rwanda and Uganda leading the fight.
The world, however, won’t know whether African nations have escaped the eye of the storm for a few months yet or whether the battle to tackle the virus in one of the world's poorest regions is just beginning.