A tweet by an account that frequently pushes COVID-19 and general vaccine misinformation went viral on Jan. 4, 2023 despite the fact that the tweet, consisting of a screenshot of a story more than a year old, originated from a well-known conspiracy theory outlet.
That story's headline claim was that "Africa is only 6% vaccinated" yet "Covid has practically disappeared." The implication is that these data somehow prove vaccines' ineffectiveness. That article, published by the Natural News-linked outlet Newstarget on Nov. 22, 2021, referenced reporting from The Associated Press first published a few days earlier:
A recent piece from the Associated Press (AP) explains that in Zimbabwe, nobody wears a mask, nobody is vaccinated, and life goes on as normal. People pack the local markets in close proximity to one another and, by golly, nobody is getting sick. ...
Only about six percent of Africa is currently jabbed … yet the continent remains "one of the least affected regions in the world."
This Snopes article explores the tweet's two parallel claims. First, we look at the assertion that only 6% of Africa is vaccinated, and, second, we explore the assertion that the virus has "practically disappeared" from the region. The former assertion is out of date, but was correct in November 2021. The latter claim ignores several problems with data collection.
'Only About Six Percent of Africa is Vaccinated'
The 6 percent figure, which referred to individuals with at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, was accurate in November 2021, but African vaccination rates — while low compared to other regions — have increased since then. As of October 2022, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), that figure was about 24%:
Overall, as of 16 October 2022, just 24% of the continent's population had completed their primary vaccination series compared with the coverage of 64% at the global level. [...]
While difficult access to doses undermined vaccination efforts in 2021, these issues have been largely resolved with countries on average receiving 67 doses per 100 people compared with 34 doses per 100 people at end 2021 and 13 doses per 100 at end September 2021.
'Covid Has Practically Disappeared' From Africa
COVID has not "disappeared" from Africa. Numerous studies indicate that a majority of the continent's inhabitants have antibodies to COVID-19 that likely stem from infection rather than vaccination. The question, then, is if the overall burden of the disease is less in African nations than it is elsewhere. A central problem in answering that question, however, is a lack of reliable data.
As The New York Times reported in March 2022, several countries simply do not have the ability to test for the presence of COVID-19, which makes attributing a death to it impossible. An illustrative example comes from Sierra Leone:
Most global Covid trackers register no cases in Sierra Leone because testing for the virus here is effectively nonexistent. With no testing, there are no cases to report. A research project at Njala University in Sierra Leone has found that 78 percent of people have antibodies for this coronavirus. Yet Sierra Leone has reported only 125 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic.
On the other hand, the most thorough COVID data collection in Africa comes from South Africa. While those data show, as the Times stated, "that Covid has killed a great many people in that country," they also almost certainly represent an undercount, as well:
The one sub-Saharan country where almost every death is counted is South Africa. And it's clear from the data that Covid has killed a great many people in that country, far more than the reported virus deaths. Excess mortality data show that between May 2020 and September 2021, some 250,000 more people died from natural causes than was predicted for that time period, based on the pattern in previous years. Surges in death rates match those in Covid cases, suggesting the virus was the culprit.
Some studies have estimated, based on the alignment of COVID-19 deaths and periods of high excess mortality, that South African COVID mortality data — on which some predictive models are based — misses the actual COVID death rate by a factor of up to 3.
Some studies have sought evidence that many deaths recorded as unrelated to COVID are, in fact, related to it. A study of 1,118 deaths occurring in Lusaka, Zambia, between January and June 2021, for example, identified the presence of COVID in many so-called non-COVID deaths:
During peak transmission periods, COVID-19 was detected in ~90% of all deaths. We observed three waves of transmission that peaked in July 2020, January 2021 and ~June 2021: the AE.1 lineage and the Beta and Delta variants, respectively. PCR signals were strongest among those whose deaths were deemed 'probably due to COVID-19', and weakest among children, with an age-dependent increase in PCR signal intensity.
On top of the problems associated with attributing a death to COVID in some African nations is the problem of accurately counting the total number of deaths that occur there in the first place, as the Times reported:
Most people [in Sierra Leone] die in their homes, not in hospitals, either because they can't reach a medical facility or because their families take them home to die. Many deaths are never registered with civil authorities.
This pattern is common across sub-Saharan Africa. A recent survey by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa found that official registration systems captured only one in three deaths.
A potential undercount of COVID cases and also in total deaths makes understanding the true burden of COVID-19 in Africa challenging. That being said, there is no reasonable argument to be made that the disease has disappeared from the entire continent of Africa, or left it unaffected.
Claims that omit known data problems in COVID death counts misinform the public and often are exploited to fit an anti-vaccine narrative. The same is true for claims derived from deceptively old clickbait articles.