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Why haven't we heard about COVID outbreaks in Kenya or Uganda?

I admit it. Early on in the global pandemic, I was really worried about my friends and colleagues in Africa. I had my share of doomsday scenarios of hospitals over capacity, people dying, and whole families sick. I assumed that their governments wouldn’t have money for testing and that the virus could spread rapidly in places where people don’t always have accessible water for hand-washing.

Seven months along, it seems my worry was misplaced. The chart below show the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people in various countries. You can see that Uganda and Malawi both had fewer cases per million than even New Zealand. And while in the US and Canada we heard a lot about how well New Zealand was doing, I didn’t really hear anything about African countries keeping case numbers low.

Looking for Explanations

What about testing? It is true that some countries like Tanzania decided to stop reporting case numbers so as not to cause panic. And the number of tests per 1,000 people in Uganda and Kenya are much lower than in the US. So there may be undetected cases there.

However, the percentage of tests that are positive in Kenya is about on par with the US (6% and 7%, respectively), and Uganda’s percentage is much lower (2% positive). A higher percentage suggests that countries may not be doing enough testing to understand the extent of the outbreak. (I played around a lot with the Our World in Data charts, which use European CDC data.)

David Zarembka, an American Quaker living in Kenya, and others have pointed out how American and European organizations and news sources seemed reluctant to credit African governments with making better decisions around managing a pandemic. Some theories that emerged to explain away the low case numbers in Africa included suggesting that African people had some genetic difference that kept them from getting the virus (you’d have to ignore the outbreak in South Africa…). Others suggested that hot temperatures were preventing the disease (never mind that Brazil has a similar climate…).

David summarizes by saying, “Notice that all of these explanations give no agency to Africans themselves, their governments, or their health officials. It is all due to external factors. They are also all false, but the racists can’t see beyond their racism to understand the real reasons Africa have done so well. They are unable to accept that Africans are doing much, much better than the Europeans/Americans because of their own efforts. Moreover they cannot comprehend that they could learn from the positive successful examples in Africa.”

Lessons Not Yet Learned

What lessons could Western countries have learned? Kenya and Uganda completely shut their borders after the very first cases were detected in their countries. All flights in and out were cancelled.

Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, was shut off from the rest of the country, so that any cases that might have come from the single case were not spread to the rest of the country. That same week, all schools were closed and a nighttime curfew closed all evening entertainment. When I arrived in the Nairobi airport last year, I had my temperature checked to screen for ebola. That was already normalized there.

In Kampala, the capital of Uganda, all transportation was immediately prohibited, unless you had a special permit to drive. This forced everyone to stay in one place. In both countries, masks were required inside all buildings. (Read also what Ghana did right.)

Meanwhile, the US borders were still open to flights, and people weren’t being effectively told to quarantine upon arrival. Domestic flights within the US and Canada were (and are) still operational. And case numbers continue to grow.

Emergency Support Still Crucial

All this is not to say that our SIA partner communities in Africa have not been affected by the virus. While African countries have managed to control virus outbreak (they’d already had practice from dealing with ebola), the Emergency grant funds that SIA sent were still crucial. I’ve written about how hunger increased under the extreme lockdowns and all sources in income were lost.

The food and emergency aid that we sent was absolutely necessary to reduce suffering. Kenyan and Ugandan governments haven’t done as well at supporting their citizens to weather the storm. There aren’t the same widespread government safety nets of unemployment insurance and stimulus checks.

However, it is time to revise my thinking about how African countries acted in ways that contained the virus, and what Western countries could have done differently, if we have looked to them for inspiration.

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