What's Happened in Africa With COVID Is a Mystery

People have been infected; whether the death rate is lower is up for debate
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 26, 2022 10:45 AM CDT
What's Happened in Africa With COVID Is a Mystery
A woman is tested for COVID-19 at the Lenasia South Hospital, near Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 1, 2021.   (AP Photo/ Shiraaz Mohamed, File)

Where are all the COVID deaths in Africa? It's a question that's been asked repeatedly, and it's one Stephanie Nolen explores for the New York Times—without landing on a definitive answer. She contrasts the situation in South Africa, which got hit hard by variants and has recorded heavy death tolls, with Sierra Leone, which has logged only 125 COVID deaths. Indeed, at one regional hospital there, "the door to the COVID isolation ward is bolted shut and overgrown with weeds," writes Nolen. What has been determined is that people are getting infected. Researchers in Sierra Leone determined 78% of people have COVID antibodies; vaccination rates currently stand at 14% on the continent right now, confirming that most of those antibodies are the result of infections.

So are fewer people dying? A slew of hypotheses emerged on that front, including that perhaps sub-Saharan Africans were less susceptible because of the age of the population (a median age of 19, half that found in the US), or that hot weather tamped down on the spread. But what has happened since in places like India (similar ages and temps but much more severe recorded outcome) poked holes in those theories. So perhaps it comes down to counting?

Nolen points out that South Africa stands alone among sub-Saharan countries in counting all its dead; perhaps just as many people died elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, they just weren't recorded as COVID fatalities (or recorded at all). Various researchers and doctors believe excess deaths did occur; others—like Dr. Thierno Balde with the WHO—say "we have not seen massive burials in Africa. If that had happened, we’d have seen it." (Read the full story here.)

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