John Amuasi is an expert on neglected tropical diseases and director of the ARNTD (African Research Network On Neglected Tropical Diseases) in Kumasi, Ghana. Impulse editor Beate Reinhold spoke with him in April 2021 about the consequences of the pandemic – for the people of Africa and for his work.
How does the pandemic affect people in Africa and which are the most vulnerable groups?
John Amuasi: Those suffering the most are the poor in overcrowded suburbs. Many of the infections and deaths occurring there go unnoticed because the poor are less visible and don’t have a voice. Recent seroprevalence studies in African cities provide the evidence. In Zambia for instance, fewer than 5,000 cases had been officially reported as at July 2020. However, a study revealed about 454,000 SARS-CoV-2 infections in the six participating districts between March and July 2020. Another study in South Africa revealed higher seroprevalence in workers with lower socioeconomic status. Generally, the African continent has a youthful population but is bedeviled by high unemployment. Restrictions such as lockdowns saw the already weak economies further plumb downwards with the poor being the most affected.
How do governments and health services manage the pandemic?
Of course, this varies widely. Some countries like Ghana are more active in contact tracing and declaring numbers of cases and so end up having a lower mortality rate than Burkina Faso, for example. There are countries which are hardly declaring cases, presumably due to lower testing capacity. With better organization and transparency with numbers of cases, Ghana was the first country in the world to receive vaccines via the WHO-coordinated COVAX program.
How do African researchers cope with Covid-related restrictions on their practical work?
In the beginning this was very challenging. A lot of very important research had to be put on hold for a while due to closure of universities and research institutions and travel restrictions, putting many studies in jeopardy as recruitment ceased. Meanwhile, most research work is back on track. Procurement of consumables for research from abroad also became more difficult, but this has since improved as well.
With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe. COVAX initiative
Which main differences in coping with the pandemic between the Global South and the Global North do you notice?
The stricter and longer lockdowns in the Global North caused many Africans living in Europe and North America to come to their home countries. However, several of the relief packages, particularly government support to institutions, business and individuals organized in countries of the Global North could not be matched in the Global South. There is a severe strain on individuals due to loss of livelihood. In addition: By March 2021 only about 1.7% of the African population have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine – which is significantly lower compared to 26.3% in the U.S. and 12.3% in the Europe. This is due to lower purchasing power and more importantly, political interventions: some vaccine-producing countries limited the export in order to focus first on catering for their own people. However, the COVAX initiative's warning should really be heeded: With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.