When the new coronavirus hit Tanzania in mid-April, President John Magufuli called for three days of national prayer to seek God’s protection from the scourge. Barely a month later, he claimed victory over the disease and invited tourists to return to his East African nation.
His rush to reopen came despite alarm from the World Health Organization (WHO) over an almost total lack of information on the spread of the virus in the country of 55 million people, which has one of the region’s weakest healthcare systems.
The shortage of reliable data afflicts many African nations, with some governments reluctant to acknowledge epidemics or to expose their crumbling health systems to outside scrutiny. Other nations simply cannot carry out significant testing because they are so ravaged by poverty and conflict.
Sharing information is vital to tackling the pandemic in Africa – both for planning the response and mobilising donor funding – public health experts say. As things stand, it is impossible to gauge the full severity of the contagion across the continent.
According to the latest data collated by Reuters, Africa, with a population of 1.3 billion people, had over 493,000 confirmed cases and 11,600 deaths. By comparison, Latin America, with roughly half the population, had 2.9 million cases and 129,900 deaths.
The official numbers make it seem as though the illness has skirted much of Africa, but the real picture is certain to be worse, with WHO special envoy Samba Sow warning on May 25 of a possible “silent epidemic” if testing was not prioritised.
By July 7, 4,200 tests per million people had been carried out across the continent, according to a Reuters analysis of figures from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a body set up by the African Union in 2017. That compares with averages of 7,650 in Asia and 74,255 in Europe.
Interviews with dozens of health workers, diplomats and local officials revealed not just a scarcity of reliable testing in most countries, but also the lengths some governments have gone to prevent news of infection rates from emerging, even if that meant they missed out on donor funding.
“We cannot help a country against its own will,” Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for the WHO in Africa, told Reuters. “In some countries, they are having meetings and not inviting us. We are supposed to be the main technical advisor.” Yao declined to single out countries, saying the WHO needed to preserve a working relationship with governments.