COVID-19 is only slowly reaching Africa. That’s no surprise

 In analysis, op-ed, personal

A woman wearing mask and gloves at Tunisia Airport Photo Credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

There are only a few cases of Coronavirus reported in Africa, but history shows us that this is to be expected.

The COVID-19 outbreak is currently sweeping out of China across the world. To date, over 95,333 cases globally have been reported. Yet of these, only 27 have been on the African continent. Medical experts are reportedly confused – wondering if there is under-reporting going on in Africa. But to understand we only need to take a brief look at the history of how other epidemics and pandemics have spread, and a little economics.

The novel coronavirus – named COVID-19 by the WHO – originated in Wuhan in China, a city with a population of 11 million – approximately 8,500 square kilometres. To date, the huge majority of the confirmed cases (84%) and deaths (91%) from the highly contagious respiratory disease have occurred in China.

However, over the past two weeks we’ve seen outbreaks take hold across many communities across the globe and multiply rapidly.

At the same time, we have seen headlines such as “African countries are at severe risk”, and “Bill Gates warns the coronavirus could hit Africa worse than China.”Evidence of this potential was set out in a widely circulated Lancet study, which ranked the vulnerability of African countries to the virus.

That said, Africa has not yet been hit hard. Egypt reported the first African confirmed case of COVID-19 on February 14th, becoming the 25th country in the world to do so, 45 days after China alerted the WHO on December 31st.

Overall, outside China, a total of 14,768 cases of COVID-19 have been reported to the WHO from 85 countries, with 267 deaths.

Of these, seven African countries (in order of confirmation – Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, and South Africa) have reported a total of 27 COVID-19 cases.  Considering the vulnerability that the Lancet study pointed out, surely this figure seems disproportionate?

Indeed, alongside the concerns for the African continent, we have also seen headlines such as “Africa’s low coronavirus rate puzzles health experts”, with excerpts such as “this is a remarkably small number for a continent with nearly 1.3 billion inhabitants, and barely a drop in the ocean.”

Is there under-reporting going on? Are Africa’s health systems unable to detect cases? Or perhaps, as being shared on social media, Africans have some sort of genetic make-up that resists the virus?

No. This is not about health systems, nor is it about racial differentiation. It is about Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Despite the huge numbers in China and increasing numbers world-wide, it is not surprising that the first case was detected so late, and there are still so few cases. A glance at history and economics helps us understand why.

In the past, other major epidemics or pandemics with origins outside Africa have also seen significant delays in reaching the continent, and have reached in much smaller numbers compared to other regions.

For instance, in 2002-2003, SARS entered Africa 5 months after it first spread in China, with South Africa becoming the 17th country in the world to report. No other country on the continent reported a case thereafter.

In 2009, H1N1 reached 60 countries outside of Africa before Egypt reported its first case two months after its initial discovery in Mexico. H1N1 eventually spread to 41 African countries, with over 8000 cases and 160 deaths on the continent. Overall, the deaths across Africa represented 1% of the total reported deaths worldwide.

We are seeing exactly the same patterns with COVID19, simply repeated in a new decade.

Why? Africa is simply less connected to the rest of the world, including China, especially in people-to-people flows. While the Lancet study helpfully explored which countries within Africa do have stronger links to China in terms of tourism flows in particular, what the authors didn’t do was put that in context.

Africa gets approximately 5% of global tourism flows, and an even smaller 4% of China’s tourists.

There are also flows of workers to Africa from all other areas of the world, including China, but these are also fairly insignificant. Of the total Chinese workers that went abroad to deliver projects in 2017, only 16% went to Africa, and 23% of those went to one country – Algeria.

In this context, the reason why Africa is not yet being strongly affected by COVID19 is not that the continent is somehow more resilient, or that screening from flights and other necessary detection and management tools are poor.

Right now, African countries are, as they have been with other epidemics in past decades, effectively “onlookers” with regards to COVID19 because its relationship with both China and the rest of the world is far behind others.

More evidence for this has been provided by the fact that the seven African countries that have been affected so far have relatively more developed tourism sectors and/or more international residents.

Only four were on the list of 11 “vulnerable” African countries identified by the aforementioned Lancet study, and only two on a similar WHO list of “vulnerable” African countries that have been prioritised for screening and other preparedness support (although this low number is partly due to the fact that WHO classifies some of the North African countries as outside of the “Africa” region).

So, what now? Can the other 48 African countries not yet affected relax? Can those with the fewest international links on the continent reduce their preparation efforts?

The answer to that is they absolutely must not relax. History suggests that now, once on the continent, the virus may spread across borders. Only yesterday, Algeria reported four new confirmed cases of the virus, the first cases not “imported” from elsewhere.

The time for all African countries to get seriously prepared is right now.

The WHO, the AU and others need to extend their support across the continent, rethinking their original modeling beyond the initial 13 “priority” countries, and ensuring there is very clear, consistent messaging on how to measure and contain the virus – both to governments and the public.

On February 22, the African Union convened a Ministerial Meeting on Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, to discuss how to strengthen preparedness and response to the outbreak by Member States and established the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus (AFCOR) to coordinate preparedness and response across the continent. It sounds promising, but how this is implemented in practical terms – and quickly – is the challenge.

Can we stop it from spreading further now?

It is possible, and history and economics also tells us that Africa’s responses to HIV/AIDs as well as Ebola, which originated on the continent, have put many African countries in a much stronger place to avoid a spread now COVID19 is here.

However, African governments, the UN, other international bodies, and the public need to have the right information and knowledge to take the right actions.

So far, that’s been missing.


This Article was published by Hannah Ryder and Leah Lynch on The Africa Report on March 6th 

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


    Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


Deputy Director

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


Research Analyst

Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


Policy Analyst

Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


Policy Analyst

Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


Trade Policy Analyst

Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


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Rosemary is our Senior Policy Analyst. She is a skilled policy analyst and has previously worked as a UK civil servant. She is studying Human Rights at Birkbeck, University of London with a research focus on international law in the context of health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Project Manager and Africa-China Communication Assistant

Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


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Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



Etsehiwot holds a Masters’s degree in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. She has diverse experience in humanitarian and development issues by working in both multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations. Etsehiwot is currently a consultant focusing on the SDGs and development finance.


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Dibekulu is an economist by training. He holds an MSc in International Development Studies from Palacky University Olomouc, an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Clermont Auvergne, and an MSc in Economics, Finance, and International Integration from the University of Pavia. At Development Reimagined, he works as an Economist consultant. He has strong data analysis skills, with research interests centring around development finance, impact assessment, food security, and agricultural insurance.


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Ferdinando’s research at Development Reimagined is centred on South-South Cooperation dynamics, specifically on the analysis of Chinese investment and debt flows in Africa and their linkages to African industrialisation. He is currently a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, after having graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.


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David is a Research and data analyst at Development Reimagined. His scholarly focus is mostly on interdisciplinary research in demographic economics and development with interests in migration, economic development and policy, education, health and subjective well-being. He is currently a PhD scholar at Nelson Mandela University from which he also holds Economics and Statistics and respectively.


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Joy Ene is a Research and Data Analyst at DR. Joy is passionate about African/global development, poverty eradication and trade policies between underdeveloped and developing countries. She is also a fourth-year student of International Economics and Trade at the  Liaoning University, Shenyang, China. She serves as the President of the Student Union, Liaoning University, International Students chapter.


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Chensi Li is a research analyst. She has previously worked for local NGOs in Nigeria and Cameroon and think-tanks in China.  Her research areas include Sino-African relations, African foreign affairs, public diplomacy, state-building and national governance.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst 

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion


Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.