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Innovations Needed to Prevent COVID-19 from Catching Fire in African Cities

mercredi 10 juin 2020

With urban population densities and poverty rates among the world’s highest, innovative measures will be needed to prevent African cities from becoming hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 spreads at close range through respiratory droplets. Consequently, the most serious outbreaks of the pandemic have been seen in dense settings and close-knit social networks. With household and core urban densities among the world’s highest, African cities have the potential to serve as deadly incubators for the virus’s spread.

Fragility, Density, and the Need for Novel Solutions in African Cities
Over half of urban Africans—more than 200 million people—live in informal neighborhoods where such vulnerable conditions persist and are magnified by limited access to water and sanitation. In countries like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Chad, nearly 9 out of 10 urban residents live in informal settlements. Some of the largest of these settlements number several hundred thousand people, including Kibera in Nairobi, Manshiyat Nasser in Cairo, and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. The population densities of these communities are frequently over 75,000 people per square kilometer. In Cairo’s densest areas, nearly 1,000 people make their homes in spaces the size of a soccer field. In Nigeria, an average of over three people sleep in every room. This number is doubled in some Nigerian cities. At least five million households in Lagos are homeless or lack adequate shelter.

Problems and proximities like these not only compound the spread of COVID-19 but also amplify the challenge of isolating at home. Africa’s responses, accordingly, will need to be carefully tailored to the continent’s unique urban landscapes.

Africa’s population centers shaded by density. Data : EC JRC, CIESIN

In assessing COVID-19-related risks in Africa’s urban areas, two defining features are particularly relevant : urban density and total urban population. Urban density shows the average number of people per kilometer in towns and cities within a country. Generally, greater density presents a problem for implementing social distancing. Total urban population captures the total population of people living in a country’s towns and cities and, therefore, reflects the number of people at higher risk for catching and spreading the coronavirus. Larger populations represent greater challenges in tracing the circulation of infected people. These patterns of population distribution overlap in different ways and manifest in a diversity of urban landscapes in Africa. This, in turn, will require different priorities and responses for battling COVID-19.

Megacities. Africa’s largest cities have grown relentlessly for decades to become home to tens of millions of people spread between overcrowded central settlements and offshoots of similarly unplanned sprawl and satellite towns. Primate cites like Lagos, Kinshasa-Brazzaville, Cairo, and Dar-es-Salaam present the challenges of both high densities and high populations. However, these cities have experience battling disease outbreaks, and many have worked with national agencies to set up capable public health systems and emergency operation centers before the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed. Vigilance in communicating, monitoring, and tracing by these initiatives will be critical for mitigating the number of confirmed cases in many African megacities.
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