THE extent of the Covid-19 pandemic in West Africa has been hugely underreported, according to blood tests showing the proportion of the population that have had a prior infection.
Almost 80 percent of people surveyed in Ghana in the first five months of 2022 had previously contracted Covid-19, sero-positivity data presented at an online seminar organised by the University of Ghana’s West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens on Wednesday showed. The number stood at an average of 50 percent in Nigeria and slightly higher in Burkina Faso.
That level of infection isn’t reflected in Ghana’s official statistics — the nation of 32-million people has reported about 162,000 cases and 1,445 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre. Nigeria, where 219-million people live, has logged 256,000 cases and 3,148 deaths while Burkina Faso, with a population of 21-million, has officially had just 21,000 cases and 384 deaths.
‘We should minimise the backslapping and saying that Africa has a magic bullet when it comes to Covid-19,’ said Gordon Awandare, director of the centre, said at the seminar.
While Africa has reported 11.7-million coronavirus cases and just less than 254,000 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates based on a World Health Organisation (WHO) model suggest that 350,000 people may have died from the disease in 2021 alone.
Weak reporting of cases and deaths in many parts of the continent has contributed to vaccine hesitancy, while the fact that the region has the highest burden of other infectious diseases of any continent has also minimized concerns. Covid-19 was only the seventh-biggest cause of death in Africa last year, just below malaria, if the data from the WHO’s modelling is used.
The spread of the Omicron variant saw sero-positivity double between January and May this year in Nigeria, with the highest incidence being in Lagos and Kano, the two biggest cities, the data showed. That pattern wasn’t replicated in Burkina Faso, which saw a smaller outbreak.
That ties in with a theory that countries affected by instability in Africa may be less affected by Covid-19 because of the relative absence of foreign travellers. Burkina Faso has been riven by Islamist militant attacks, while widespread kidnappings, jihadist activity and criminality in northern Nigeria has discouraged travel. Ghana is comparatively stable.
Affluent people in both Ghana and Nigeria were more likely to have been infected with Covid-19, possibly because they travel more and probably frequented closed-in places such as shopping malls, Peter Kojo Quashie, deputy director at the centre, said in a presentation. That contrasts with SA and richer countries where poor people tend to live in crowded conditions and some have jobs that require them to interact with large numbers of people.