Zimbabwe Ditches Masks, Yet Still Avoids COVID Disaster

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, health experts feared the virus would hit Africa killing millions, yet that scenario has not materialized in Zimbabwe or much of the African continent.

Earlier this week, Zimbabwe recorded just 33 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths, in line with a recent fall in the disease across the continent, where World Health Organization data show that infections have been dropping since July.

As in much of Zimbabwe, the coronavirus is quickly being relegated to the past, as political rallies, concerts and home gatherings have returned.

But there is something “mysterious” going on in Africa that is puzzling scientists, said Wafaa El-Sadr, chair of global health at Columbia University. “Africa doesn’t have the vaccines and the resources to fight COVID-19 that they have in Europe and the U.S., but somehow they seem to be doing better,” she said.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa are vaccinated. For months, the WHO has described Africa as “one of the least affected regions in the world” in its weekly pandemic reports.

Scientists warn that declining coronavirus trends could easily reverse. Studies are seeking other explanations such as genetics or past infection with parasitic diseases.

Researchers said they found COVID-19 patients with high rates of exposure to malaria were less likely to suffer severe disease or death than people with little history of the disease.

“We went into this project thinking we would see a higher rate of negative outcomes in people with a history of malaria infections because that’s what was seen in patients co-infected with malaria and Ebola,” said Jane Achan, a senior research advisor at the Malaria Consortium and a co-author of the study. “We were actually quite surprised to see the opposite — that malaria may have a protective effect.”

“I think there’s a different cultural approach in Africa, where these countries have approached COVID with a sense of humility because they’ve experienced things like Ebola, polio and malaria,” Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh said.

Back in Zimbabwe, doctors were grateful for the respite from COVID-19 — but feared it was only temporary.

As Dr. Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association warned, “Complacency is what is going to destroy us because we may be caught unaware.”