Ironically, it appears that the elephant in the room in global tourism will once again be Africa. Remember the 2014 pandemic, when the Ebola virus in West Africa shut down tourism throughout the continent, despite the outbreak being further away from most of Africa’s safari destinations than the UK.
So, it's warthog day yet again as the “darkest Africa” cloud gathers and the UK’s dreaded red brush hovers over the key African tourism destinations, preventing all international travel. A touch of red and tourism’s dead. The old cherries put forward, of limited testing capacity, poor health and under reporting are pulled out of the hat again and again without detailed scrutiny. That narrative does not fit the reality.
The reality is the low numbers of deaths from COVID-19 across the 13 or so key safari destinations in sub-Saharan Africa. Just 70,000 deaths in a total population across those 13 countries of around 400 million (80% are in one country, South Africa). So why are all these countries, with one exception, Uganda (hello!), on the UK’s red list?
A recent report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control and its African counterpart makes these points, in support of the reasons why Africa’s death rates in this pandemic are so low.
- Resources and lessons learned throughout Africa, from widespread HIV and tuberculosis, were leveraged in the fight against COVID-19.
- The political will of most African governments has been a key element in the response, with swift lockdowns restricting movement and task forces organised to co-ordinate efforts.
- Warm weather gives Africa a much-needed lifeline and, moving forward, safari is an open-air experience anyway.
- Compared with Europe, Africa has a far lower importation risk of the virus based on the volume of air travel from, say, China to Africa.
- Probably the most important reason of all, is the low infection rate of Africa’s very young population, with a median age of 19.4 years compared with 40 in UK and 38 in USA. The average age for fatalities from COVID-19 in the UK is 80.4 which underlines the data that the disease is far more severe in older populations.
In conclusion, although it is true that Africa does not have the same testing capacity as other regions in the world, the low numbers are explained by the fact that Africa has a long experience of handling infectious diseases and that its youthful population is far less susceptible to the virus than other continents.
Our plea to UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre, who hold the sword of Damocles, is for a science-based approach combining the right balance between risk and protection. Then, once the selections for each of the green, amber, and red zones are finally made, the UK Foreign Office must review the travel advice so that outbound and inbound restrictions are aligned. Only then can the elephant be let out of the room allowing safaris and business travel to Africa to resume once again.