Over the past few days, we have attempted to build a model of COVID-19 infection – and given up. Despite the best efforts of two former colleagues, both with math degrees, and plenty of our own time hunched over spreadsheets, the task is too difficult. The reason is lack of data on infection, as well as lack of data on recoveries, both of which are essential inputs into the standard model. This is as true of developed nations as it is true anywhere else in the world. Until countries can test entire populations (Germany might achieve this benchmark by year-end), we doubt there will be a trusted model. Nevertheless, epidemiologists still develop models and influence government policy. And, of course, they differ.
There are, however, data on deaths from COVID-19, and we are inclined to treat these as
much more reliable than any model of infection rates. We came across this table of deaths
from COVID-19 recorded up until 14 April in New York State. The breakdown is by age
What are the implications for Africa, and Nigeria in particular? The main implication is that
deaths are concentrated among those over 44 years of age, and the older the age group
the greater incidence of recorded death from COVID-19. In Nigeria, 62.3% of people are
under 25, and 92.7% are under 55. If (and it is a big ‘if’) one can read across from New York State to Nigeria, then Nigerian survival rates may turn out to be higher than those in New York State.
This could explain recent newspaper reports about a puzzlingly low impact of COVID-19 in
African countries. Is it due to under-reporting? Is it due to a delay in the spread of the
disease? Is it due to COVID-19’s dislike of heat and ultra-violet light? These may be factors. But a youthful population, in our opinion, is likely to prove key.
This does not address – it does not even begin to address – the issue of infection rates. The
data in the table has nothing to add to the debate about the prevalence of COVID-19
infection. It cannot be used as evidence that COVID-19 is a widespread infection with a low
fatality rate (concentrated among the elderly), which is the opinion of the influential
Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke. But it is consistent with that view. Whether COVID-19 infection proves to be narrow or widespread, we believe Africa’s best chances lie
in its youthful demographics.