Confirmed COVID cases across African countries has risen by 500% in the the past two months and more than doubled in July, amidst dire testing shortfalls and poor access to data on the actual extent of the pandemic in crisis-affected countries on the continent. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) fears that our COVID response is fighting the epidemic in the dark, and COVID-19 cases are much higher than official numbers suggest.

A lack of data due to a variety of factors - such as testing capacity, health infrastructure devastated by conflict, and stigma - is seriously impacting the ability to plan and execute an effective COVID response. The International Rescue Committee is working to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in crisis-affected countries across the continent, but is calling for a major increase in funding and international support to increase testing and mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Stacey Mearns, Senior Technical Advisor of Emergency Health at the IRC, said, “Where testing is insufficient, we are fighting this disease in the dark. The doubling of confirmed COVID cases in July across African countries is alarming, but we are worried that this could be the tip of the iceberg. For all the countries where we work in the region, testing rates fall far below WHO guidelines. Without testing, there are indeed ‘no cases’ - but this does not mean the virus is not spreading unchecked. For example, in Somalia, 32% of those tested are positive - in contrast to 3% in Germany - indicating that a huge proportion of COVID cases are going undetected, leaving the pandemic to spread freely.

“The testing shortfalls make it nearly impossible to understand the extent of the pandemic - let alone put measures in place to stop it. Yet, other indicators show that the spread could be much worse than we know. For example, we are seeing increasing deaths due to acute respiratory syndromes in countries like South Sudan, and a higher percentage of healthcare workers becoming infected in places like Liberia (16%), Niger (16%) and Sierra Leone (15%), compared to just 3% in the US. This is evidence that the pandemic could be hitting harder than the numbers reveal. 

“These countries need international support to increase their testing capacity, at least to the level of WHO guidelines. In the absence of a serious boost in financial support for crisis-affected and fragile states already on the frontline of the pandemic, we risk an undetected and uncontrolled spread - and a response fighting with a hand tied behind its back.”

These figures are a wake up call for donors and policy makers, especially for legislators in the US negotiating a COVID aid package. To truly defeat this virus anywhere, we need to defeat it everywhere, including in countries and communities outside of today’s headlines.

The IRC has developed a comprehensive mitigation and response plan which touches every country where we work, including 21 countries across Africa, and focuses on preparing for, preventing and responding to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities, and meeting our clients’ other immediate health and economic needs and expanding our protection services for women and girls. While ensuring the safety of our staff, we are working to adapt and continue our lifesaving programming uninterrupted as much as possible. The IRC has launched an appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations. 


Note to editors

Confirmed COVID cases on the Africa continent were as follows on May 30th, 2020: 140,768, June 30, 2020: 404,267, July 27, 2020: 846,648.

All data is as of July 23, 2020 unless otherwise noted, and has been compiled by various sources including individual ministries of health

Tanzania has not reported COVID-19 data since May 8, 2020