Alarmist reporting is getting basic facts wrong
The last few days have seen an avalanche of reports that a third wave of Covid-19 is underway in Africa. Seasoned coronavirus watchers will not be surprised that the alarm was raised in Geneva. WHO Central issued alarming press releases on June 7th and 17th, with the Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, stating in the latter that “Africa is in the midst of a full-blown third wave”. So what’s happening?
Since the June 7th press release, there have been 1,651 new deaths reported from Covid-19 across the entire continent in 17 days, less than 100 per day. In a continent where 9 million people die annually (roughly 25,000 per day), reported Covid deaths in this “full-blown” third wave thus currently account for roughly 0.4% of daily mortality in Africa. Certainly, there are mortality increases from Covid reported in some countries such as Cape Verde and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but they are not anything like on the scale of what has happened elsewhere.
Moreover, the vast majority of these fatalities have occurred in temperate zones: South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia account for 105,000 of the 139,500 deaths reported from Covid-19 across the continent.
Many of the reports on this “third wave” point to the failure to count deaths accurately, and suggest that these figures mask the true problem. Reports from the BBC and the New York Times have pointed to a continent-wide lack of systemic mortality figures. But running at 0.4% of current mortality, and touching a small area of the continent as a whole, even if this was an underestimate by 1000%, Covid would still only be a minor concern to most Africans. In fact, a recent paper disputes these accusations of undercounting: the authors note that “while only 34.6% of countries [in Africa] have complete death registration data… all countries have a system in place, and there is no evidence that COVID-19 mortality data is less accurately reported in Africa than elsewhere”.
What certainly does go under-reported are cases. This is good news, as it indicates that much of the continent’s population has already developed antibodies to Covid-19 through mild infections. In a study from July to October 2020 of mineworkers tested in Ivory Coast, 25.1% had Covid antibodies; meanwhile, a February study in South Africa based on blood donors found antibody levels of 63% in Eastern Cape, 46% in Free State, and 52% in KwaZulu Natal, while a study from Cameroon just published found antibody levels of 32%. These figures far outstrip recorded cases, suggesting that many Africans already have protection from Covid.
However the WHO redefined herd immunity last year as only achievable through vaccination, so it may not want to publicise this. The Guardian last week added to the clamour, reporting on research that had not been peer-reviewed and which claimed that Covid infection did not provide immunity. Ironically, a series of studies published in Nature the week before had found that “the evidence thus far predicts that infection with SARS-CoV-2 induces long-term immunity in most individuals”.
The evidence from Africa is quite clear, in fact. Large sections of the population have now developed Covid antibodies, and death rates are low compared to other chronic illnesses. Herd immunity does not have to be achieved through vaccination, either in Africa or elsewhere. But none of these conclusions fit with the catastrophic decisions taken by global policy elites over the past year, so they won’t be coming to a television news channel near you any time soon.
Toby Green is the author of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (Hurst).