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What the Pandemic is Revealing about Public Health Spending in Africa

While the COVID-19 pandemic has rampaged through the United States, thus far, the far more vulnerable countries in sub-Saharan Africa have largely been spared the worst of the impact.

From as early as February 2020, scientists in Asia, Europe and North America began to voice confusion as to why Africa had so far been relatively unscathed by the scourge.

At that time, most of the news relating to COVID-19 centered on the worst-hit countries in Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, and India) and Europe (Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom), as well as the rapid growth of the disease across the USA.

In the past, Africa was always in the forefront of news relating to human epidemics (i.e. Ebola, Lassa, HIV etc), and so it was assumed by many that this current strain of Coronavirus would also strike that continent. In many respects this was a rather unfair assumption, but that did not stop the international medical community from discussing the mystery of Africa having escaped COVID-19.

With by far the largest population on the continent, and because human epidemics such as Ebola and Lassa have devastated it in the past decade, Nigeria was the prime subject of this particular medical mystery. However, during the last month, news finally began to percolate in the international science media about the appearance of COVID-19 not just in Nigeria, but also in noticeable numbers in South Africa, Ghana and Egypt.

Analysts were quick to theorize that consistently low expenditure on public health was the reason for the late “entry” of African nations into the pandemic league. As statistics started to emerge on the numbers of people tested in Africa for this particular virus, the one conclusion that was ascribed to this was that African nations have been incredibly negligent in spending on health.

Not only was there little infrastructure for carrying out nationwide testing but even more importantly, there were very few dedicated hospitals, clinics, isolation centers and laboratories for addressing the rapid penetration of this virus.

Further, Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) shows the country had tested only 40,023 people as of May 20. This can be compared to the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK, who have confirmed they have tested 3,090,566 people as of 21 May and the 12,917,827 tests reportedly administered in the USA by the CDC. Some of Africa’s smallest countries have achieved significantly better rates of testing than their larger counterparts. For example, Mauritius and Djibouti have both achieved high rates of testing per capita.

Western scientists were quick to point out that what had appeared to be a relatively low penetration of the virus in Africa was actually a reflection of tragically low budgets and expenditure on public health as a whole. Doctors and other medical staff in Nigeria were somewhat gratified that the country’s abysmal healthcare budget was now being exposed. Local media were quick to compare Nigeria’s per capita testing results to those of South Africa and Ghana, pointing out that this record was symptomatic of the corruption of past and present administrations in respect of public health.

Nigeria could only be proud of one achievement: that is, among African countries, Nigeria had the highest per-capita amount of aid and donations made by the private sector towards rolling out of equipment, machinery, laboratories, dedicated hospitals and other infrastructure to support the Government’s low public health expenditure.

Donations from Nigeria’s army of billionaires were front-page news in print media as well as on national and cable TV. Dangote, Otedola, Adenuga, Ovia and Wigwe joined entertainment stars such as Davido, Wizkid, Tiwa Savage and others in making eye-catching advertisements extolling the virtue of private sector donations as a supplement to Government public health expenditure. This is eerily similar to circumstances in Russia where the nation’s infamous oligarch class with its limitless bank accounts has taken on the role of economic saviour during this thoroughly modern crisis.

However, there is light at the end of tunnel. COVID 19 is more dangerous for those over the age of 65, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirming that those aged over 65 accounting for 80% of the U.S. deaths. Nigeria and other African countries have a young demographic, this should hopefully be advantageous and protect the mortality rate. Although medical experts and Western media have focused on the disadvantages of African countries during this pandemic, the hope will be the percentage of the younger demographic will protect it from feeling the negative effects of COVID 19.