Lockdown is real killer in Africa

| NewsAfrica | Opinion

At the last count, Covid-19 had infected 35 million people worldwide, leaving more than a million dead.

Not since the Spanish flu of the early 20th century has the world witnessed such a rapid death toll from a viral disease.

In the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, more than 500 million people were infected worldwide, with 50 million deaths.

Global organisations and governments initially responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by calling on people to wash their hands and use social distancing to limit the spread of the viral infection.

The use of one subsequent measure of control – lockdown – has become very controversial, especially in Africa.

Total lockdown involves enforcing complete limitation of movement, and asking people to stay indoors for a minimum of two weeks – the presumed incubation period of the disease.

The aim is that the transmission chain of the disease would be broken, ultimately bringing it under control.

People have, however, questioned the wisdom behind such drastic measures, regarding it as panicky if not downright dangerous – not least because Africa and most of its 1.35 billion people are very disadvantaged.

According to a 2018 report by the United Nations, Africa was home to some 70 per cent of the world’s poorest people, with about 422 million – or one in three people in Africa – living below poverty line.

That’s nearly half a billion people living on less than $1.90 a day.

The effects of total lockdown will play out subtly in Africa. Many African children die before their first birthday, with 27 per cent of children not seeing out their first year in 2019.

Depressingly, the lockdowns may worsen this.

A study by one US charity predicted there would be an additional 2.3 million child deaths due to the disruption of health services during the lockdown this year.

Women have not been able to take their children to clinics for immunizations against neonatal tetanus, tuberculosis (TB), whooping cough and other antigens, all of which remain serious childhood killers in most communities in Africa.

An analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) projected a resurgence of these childhood killers, and an extra 200,000 fatalities from TB alone because of disruptions to healthcare caused by the pandemic.

Access to anti-retroviral therapy has also been affected, according to the WHO.

There has also been a disruption in vital drug supplies because of lockdowns. It is predicted that this disruption could also lead to half a million deaths from Aids-related illnesses alone.

To make matters worse, it could also lead to drug resistance. This means that even after the lockdown has ended, Aids patients might no longer respond to the drugs used for their routine treatment, leading to complications from the disease and eventually death.

There are also serious concerns about how a disruption to the supply of mosquito nets and antimalarial drugs could be negatively impacting the fight against malaria in Africa, with several countries reporting rises in malaria deaths during the pandemic.

In Africa, it has become a tradition to use insecticide-treated bed nets against mosquito bites. Any disruption to their supply will cause deaths to rise.

According to World Malaria Report, 228 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide in 2018, leading to 405,000 deaths.

It is estimated that Africa accounted for 94 per cent of total global mortalities.

Apart from deaths, much of the poverty in Africa has been attribute to malaria, which is estimated to result in loses of about $12 billion a year from increased healthcare costs, reduced productivity and a decrease in tourism in African countries.

Malaria is also a serious contributor to infant mortality in Africa. It has been shown to cause abortions and still births, leading to some 200,000 infant deaths a year.

But it’s not just other diseases that are on the rise. Maternal health has also been severely affected during the lockdown.

Even in the US, where maternal mortality is low, it is known that maternity wards in some health facilities were converted to accommodate Covid-19 patients.

There were also offers of induced labour to get women in and out of hospitals as quickly as possible to limit exposure to infection with the virus.

Maternal health, meanwhile, has taken a deadly turn for the worse in Africa, where services have been less accessible and less affordable for millions of women in dire need of help.

A study in the medical journal The Lancet estimated there may be more than 12,000 extra maternal deaths in Africa because of the pandemic.

The predictions for neonatal deaths are even more staggering. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, anywhere between a quarter of a million and 1.1 million children might die because of problems created during the pandemic.

If true, it would echo the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when, between 2014 and 2016, the use of maternal and neonatal services dropped so much, the rise in maternal deaths, neonatal deaths and stillbirths outnumbered the deaths caused directly by Ebola.

Moreover, a study by UN Women revealed that women faced a higher risk of gender-based violence because of Covid-19 lockdowns.

Cases of domestic violence, particularly against women and girls, as well as rape and sexual assaults, have increased in many countries around the world, including Nigeria, where an increase in health, financial and security worries are thought to have created tensions in confined, crowded households. 

There is an even more serious angle to this grotesque story: mass unemployment.

A vast number of Africans are not engaged in formal paid employment and rely on piece-meal work on farms, factories or construction sites, or in other unstable roles such as cobbling, wheelbarrow pushing or petty trading. According to World Bank reports, informal workers, most of whom are women, are responsible for more than 90 per cent of the workforce in sub-Saharan Africa.

Lockdowns have ensured that this crucial way of living is severely disrupted, resulting in hunger, malnutrition, frustration and despondency.

With so much disadvantage, many think the decision by governments to apply total lockdowns may have been misplaced.

They may be right. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has recorded less than 60,000 cases of Covid-19 and just over 1,100 deaths in a country of up to 200 million people.

The hunger, starvation, malnutrition and deaths caused by the lockdown on such a large population may not be easy to track.

But it is easy to assume that many more people could have been killed by lockdown-induced poverty than the number attributed to the virus.

It may be easy to blame governments for taking hasty decisions on the lockdown issue. If truth be told, they may have been panicked into lockdowns.

The World Health Organization predicted 10 million cases within the first six months of occurrence of the disease, and cited the prospect of Africa’s fragile health systems being overwhelmed by the number of expected deaths.

Without emergency aid, other United Nations experts said, there could be 1.2 billion cases worldwide within six months and 3.3 million deaths.

With these loud predictions, many advanced countries went for a total lockdown, and predictably, many African countries followed suit.

But while the advanced countries may be able to pay their citizens not to work, African countries cannot afford such luxuries, and have been left in the lurch.

It is not so easy to correct the trajectory when dealing with a disease that has successfully defeated many expert predictions.

But we are now left to wonder how much sense there was in the total lockdown.

We are also left to ask whether in blindly following the lockdown route, African governments did not end up shooting themselves – and us – in the foot.



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