In a busy market square on the outskirts of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Nyasha Ndou keeps his mask in his pocket.
Around him, hundreds of people, most unmasked, rush to buy and sell fruits and vegetables displayed on wooden tables and plastic tarps.
Here, as in several African cities, the coronavirus seems relegated to the past. Political rallies, concerts and extended family gatherings are back.
“COVID-19 is gone, when was the last time you heard of someone who died of COVID-19?” Asks Nyasha Ndou. “In fact, the mask is there to protect my pocket against the police demanding bribes if we move without it,” he explains.
At the beginning of the week, Zimbabwe recorded only 33 new COVID-19 cases and no deaths.
A trend confirmed across the African continent by data from the World Health Organization (WHO), which shows that infections linked to the coronavirus have been declining since July.
However, when the coronavirus emerged last year, health officials, including the WHO, said they feared the pandemic could wreak havoc in Africa. Some have even predicted millions of victims. Although it is not yet clear what the final price of the COVID-19 disease will be, this catastrophic scenario has not materialized in Zimbabwe or in most of the African continent.
Something “mysterious” is happening in Africa, according to Wafaa El-Sadr, president of global health at Columbia University. “Africa does not have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 as it does in Europe and the United States, but somehow it seems to be better,” he adds.
Less than 6% of those vaccinated
Less than 6% of the population of Africa is vaccinated against the coronavirus. For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.
According to some researchers, the youth of the continent’s population (the average age is 20 compared to 43 in Western Europe), as well as its low rate of urbanization and its tendency to spend time outdoors, may have prevented the most lethal effects of the virus. so far.
Several studies are trying to determine if there are other explanations, including genetic reasons or exposure to other diseases.
“It’s not always about how much money you have or how sophisticated your hospitals are,” says Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Infectious Disease Genomics at Redeemer University in Nigeria.
He adds that African health authorities are used to stopping epidemics even in the absence of vaccines and can count on the vast networks of community health workers.
“I think there is a different cultural approach in Africa, where these countries have approached COVID with a sense of humility because they have known things like Ebola, polio and malaria,” said Devi Sridhar, President of Public Health. Global at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
The South African exception
In recent months, the coronavirus has hit South Africa hard and is estimated to have killed more than 89,000 people there, by far the highest death toll on the continent.
WHO data shows that deaths in Africa account for only 3% of the global total. By comparison, deaths in the Americas and Europe account for 46% and 29%, respectively.
In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, the government has so far recorded nearly 3,000 deaths among its 200 million people. This is the equivalent of the number of deaths recorded in the United States every two to three days.
These low numbers relieve Nigerians like Opemipo Are, a 23-year-old who lives in Abuja. “They said there would be bodies in the streets and all that, but nothing like that happened,” he says.
However, experts ask people to be careful.
“People have to be very vigilant,” warns Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Zimbabwe Association of Private Physicians and Dentists. He fears another wave of coronavirus will hit the country next month. “It is complacency that runs the risk of destroying us because they could catch us off guard.”
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