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COVID-19 in Africa: The need to improve communication

Cristina Krippahl
June 10, 2020

Some African countries have been criticized for not issuing accurate data on COVID-19. For structural reasons, data gathering is more of a challenge in Africa than in Europe. But that's not the main problem, experts say.

A woman passing by a wall with coronavirus graffiti
Image: AFP/I, Sanogo

Recently, Tanzania's President John Magufuli raised eyebrows around the world by stating that his country had "eliminated the corona disease, thanks to God." Magufuli has been on the receiving end of particularly harsh criticism since he decided to stop issuing data on the spread of COVID-19 at the end of April. An attack on opposition leader Freeman Mbowe late on Monday, which left him hospitalized, was attributed by his Chadema party to Mbowe's insistence on more transparency in the fight against the virus.

Magufuli has happily taken over the role of the African outlier, shrugging off international criticism. "You can have a certain sympathy with Tanzania's position," Osman Dar, a health expert with the London-based think tank Chatham House told DW. Collecting data in itself is expensive. Dar does not consider the lack of data coming out of Tanzania to be an insurmountable problem as there are enough non-governmental institutions on the ground to pick up the slack.

Magufuli's government, like many others in Africa, has to weigh the benefits of a lockdown against its impact on the economy and access to health services. In the UK alone, Dar explains, it is estimated that about 20% of additional deaths since the beginning of the pandemic can be attributed to people failing to get medical help during the lockdown and have nothing to do with COVID-19. The consequences in countries where access to medical care is already very difficult could prove much more dire.

Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli in Dar es Salaam
Tanzania's President Magufuli is immune to criticism for his handling of the pandemicImage: DW/S. Khamis

Carefully weighing priorities

Convincing people of the seriousness of the pandemic is proving to be another problem. On a continent where, unlike Europe, there is hardly any social protection "people are likely to ask 'if we have HIV, tuberculosis and malaria killing hundreds of thousands of people and the government doesn't care, why are you suddenly so worried about this coronavirus infection?'," Dar says. People can see the consequences of the suspension, for example, of vaccination programs against measles and other diseases. This also provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take hold.

"In Ghana, the illiteracy rate in Ghana is comparatively high," says Courage Kosi Setsoafia Saba, a microbiologist at the University of Development Studies in Tamale. He believes that the data being collated in his country is "ok." But, he added, "depending on the way you come out with figures, there will be a lot of questions."

Contradictory and precipitate official announcements are one problem. "When we had around 3,000 cases, government officials announced that we had reached our peak," Saba told DW. "Just a few days after that announcement, we had a surge in cases.". According to figures from Johns Hopkins University, Ghana currently has 10,201 confirmed cases and 43 deaths.

A woman on a truck distributes food among members of the public
Food was given out in Accra to people in need as a result of the coronavirus lockdown Image: AFP/N. Dennis

Ghana pioneers data gathering method

In Tamale, people find it difficult to believe that COVID-19 even exists. The fact that the first ten people who were diagnosed and treated for the disease - and later declared cured - exhibited no apparent symptoms. 

This skepticism has had very real consequences: "Three weeks ago, a lot of people were practicing social distancing," the microbiologist says. Now, many people have stopped wearing masks.

But Ghana has actually been a pioneer with regards to introducing a new and effective method of collating relevant data, health expert Dar says. Pooled testing, as it is known, "is now being tried by other countries too," as a means of increase testing capacities. This kind of sampling combines biological specimens from multiple subjects into a testing pool and which is then subjected to a single test. If the result comes back negative, no further tests are required, freeing up capacities.  

Strategic failures

It's no surprise that countries who are going through political and security crises find it more difficult to react swiftly to the pandemic.

Cameroonians, who are already suspicious of the authorities' motives, are especially sensitive to numbers that don't add up or even contradict themselves. Albert Ze, who has won multiple awards for his research in health economics, does not spare his government criticism for the way it has been handling the pandemic.

"From the start we failed to do what needed to be done to fight the virus," he told DW. The measures taken were copied from Europe and did not take into account Cameroon's unique political, social, and health structures - with dire results. Ze also blames the World Health Organization (WHO), for spearheading an overly "harmonized" global response to the pandemic.

The Centre Pasteur in  Yaunde's capital Cameroon
All of Cameroon's coronavirus testing was processed in one laboratoryImage: Imago Images/Xinhua/J. P. Kepseu

So far, Cameroon has officially registered 8,631 cases and 212 deaths. But Ze believes that the data presented by the government is not credible at all. Most of the numbers are out-dated and don't reflect the current situation at any given time. This is mainly due to the centralization of the whole testing process in only one institution. The government has only now started to make an effort to decentralize testing. While he is aware of a number of "mistakes by the state," Albert Ze does not see any sinister motives behind the official action.

A dearth of credible information

He does criticize the fact that Cameroon has three institutions publishing contradictory data. "As result there is no credible information available for the population."

In times of crisis, credible information is crucial for developing working strategies, he said. "Many people do not believe in the existence of a virus anymore. Others think the danger is over because the government lifted some restrictions."

Ze believes there has to be an effort by the government to educate the population on the need to comply with the measures for containing the spread of the virus. Ghanaian health expert Courage Kosi Setsoafia Saba calls on "evidence-based education" of the population by the government." Even though there is a stigma attached to the illness, "those who have recovered should speak out about their experience," he said.

DW correspondent Tulanana Bohela on life under the threat of COVID-19