A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted

In the absence of data, experts can make wildly different claims. “The mortality due to Covid in the African continent is not a major pu...

In the absence of data, experts can make wildly different claims.

“The mortality due to Covid in the African continent is not a major public issue,” said Dorian Job, the West Africa program manager for Doctors Without Borders. What he called “crazy predictions” on Covid — the United Nations said in April that up to 3.3 million Africans would die of it, for example — meant that harsh lockdowns were imposed. The economic and social effects of these would be felt in Africa for decades, Dr. Job said.

But at the other end of the spectrum, researchers have just declared that there was a huge, hidden outbreak in the capital of Sudan. In the absence of a good death registration system, they used a molecular and serological survey and an online one distributed on Facebook, where people reported their symptoms and whether they’d had a test. The researchers calculated that Covid-19 killed 16,000 more people than the 477 deaths confirmed by mid-November in Khartoum, which has a population roughly the size of Wisconsin’s.

Khartoum is only one city in a vast, diverse continent with a variety of approaches to fighting the pandemic. But several factors that the researchers cited for why the Covid-19 caseload might be vastly underreported — stigma, people unable to get tested, the fact that the threshold for reacting to any disease is high — are true in many African countries.

“Every time somebody says, ‘I’m so glad Africa has been spared,’ my toes just curl,” said Maysoon Dahab, an infectious disease epidemiologist at King’s College London who worked on the Khartoum study.

Mr. Agunbiade, the Lagos registrar, fills out a table each month tallying what caused the deaths he registered, if known. There are about a dozen categories to choose from. Old age. Malaria. Maternal mortality.

There is no Covid-19 column, though he said sometimes he crossed out the AIDS / H.I.V. column and put Covid. Perhaps many Africans are dying of Covid-19, but their deaths are being misidentified — much as studies suggested they were early in the United States epidemic.

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Newsrust: A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted
A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted
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