Coronavirus in Africa: Intelligence neglect and lessons for Africa Union

Coronavirus Test 5 File photo: Temperature being taken

Fri, 3 Apr 2020 Source: Yaro Kasambate


As at Thursday, April 2, 2020, there has been 938,179 cases and 47,272 death of the Novel Corona Virus (Covid-19)1 around the world making it the largest global pandemic in human history. The virus has wreaked havoc with varying severity in Asia, Middle East, Europe, America and Africa with and has caused massive disruptions to the health, security, safety of people around the world with looming global economic recession.

The Covid-19 outbreak and its varying ramifications appear to have overwhelmed even the most sophisticated societies around the world. Countries such as China, United States of America (USA) and Europe noted for their advanced early warning systems, proficiency in health surveillance and sophistication of health delivery infrastructure could not anticipate the outbreak of the virus, curtail its spread and halt its ravaging consequences on citizens and economies. The Africa continent, has not been spared the ravaging impact of the virus. This paper examines Africa’s vulnerabilities to the Covid-19 and makes recommendations on how to anticipate and prevent future epidemic of Covid-19 proportions on the African Continent.

The central view of this paper is that intelligence failure and neglect to act swiftly on available intelligence is the cause of the spread of Covid-19 in Africa. The paper makes a case for the recognition of human security as a doctrine in the Africa Security Intelligence Architecture thereby developing innovative infrastructure to tackle Covid-19 as a human security threat and similar epidemic (s) in future.

Background of covid-19 and the spread around the world

China, on December 31, 2019 detected cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, capital city of Hubei Province. At that time, the virus was unknown. The cases occurred between December 12 and December 29, according to Wuhan Municipal Health Authority. By January 7, 2020, Chinese authorities had confirmed that the virus is identified as a novel coronavirus and was later re-named Covid-19 by the World Health Organization (WHO)2. As at March 30, 2020, China had recorded 81,518 with 3,305 deaths3. By April 1, 2020; Spain had confirmed 102,136 cases of

1 https://www.ft.com (April 2, 2020 at 9.30am, Accra)

2 https://edition.cnn.com/2020/02/06/health/wuhan-coronavirus-timeline-fast-facts/index.html, (April 1, 2020 at

22. 40hrs, Accra)

3 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/01/china (April 2, 2020 at 9.40am, Accra)


COVID-19, and 9,053 fatalities, according to data released by the Spanish Health Ministry4. As of April 1, 2020, the number of Covid-19 cases in Italy has reached 112, 0005 with 13,155 deaths and 16,847 recovered6 prompting WHO to declare Europe as the epicentre of Covid-19 after Chinese exonerated itself from the infamous title. By April 2, 2020, the USA has become the epicentre of the Covid-19 with nearly 217, 000 with 5, 137 deaths7. In Africa nearly 5, 800 Corona virus cases have been recorded in 49 States with 196 deaths and 412 recoveries. Given the volume of trade and travel between Africa, Asia and Europe, the continental leadership of Africa ought to picked the signal as far back as January 2020 when Covid-19 was ravaging China. On the contrary, intelligence inertia amongst African security leadership led us to perceived that Africa would be insulated against the virus infection.

Why Africa Vulnerabilities to Covid-19 Is Critical

According to the AU’s Joint Continental Strategy for the Covid-19 Outbreak, Africa’s baseline vulnerability is high due to the following factors:

i. Africa’s fragile health systems, concurrent epidemics of vaccine-preventable and other infectious diseases;

ii. Inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure;

iii. Africa’s population mobility, and susceptibility for social and political unrest during times of crisis;

The AU’s Joint Continental Strategy for the Covid-19 Outbreak also recognizes demography as one factor that could mitigate deaths in Africa. More than 50 percent of the population is under 20 years old, a group that has been relatively spared from illness and death from Covid-19 in Asia. Besides these appraisals by the AU, other risks exist. Poverty, lack social welfare services, inadequate housing and the peasant market systems in Africa, could frustrate preventive measures such as lockdown and other social distancing mechanisms. With average Covid-19 test costing about USD100 per head, the low household income levels and huge unemployment in Africa mean that majority of people cannot afford to test for Covid-19 and the treatment thereof. Furthermore, weak economies in Africa will impede governments’ ability to embark on large-scale testing to determine the scope and spread of the virus as

4. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/ (April 2, 2020 at 9.40am, Accra)

5. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1099375/coronavirus-cases-by-region-in-italy/(April 2, 2020 at 9.50am, Accra)

6. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/italy/ (April 2, 2020 at 9.55am, Accra)

7. https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2020/health/coronavirus (April 2, 2020 at 12:00hrs, Accra

These factors leave Africa with “Prevention” as the only effective weapon for the fight against Covid-19 and this is where actionable intelligence to prevent the virus from permeating the continent was needed but unfortunately the continental security architecture of Africa missed the opportunity.

Spread of Covid-19 in Africa

Data released by the African Union8 (AU) on the COVID-19 makes interesting revelation. The continent of Africa is divided into five sub-regions and the breakdown is as follows:

1. Northern Africa has registered 2,437 Corona Virus cases, with 136 deaths and 259 recoveries;

2. Southern Africa countries have registered 1,436 cases of Corona Virus, 9 deaths and 32 recoveries. Interestingly, South Africa has the highest cases in this category with 1,353 cases, 5 deaths and 31 recoveries;

3. West Africa, there are 1, 031 cases of coronavirus, 27 deaths and 102 recoveries.

4. East Africa there are 483 cases, with 9 death and 6 recoveries.

5. Central Africa have recorded 399 cases with 15 deaths and 13 recoveries.

At this point, the AU leadership deserve commendation here for establishing the network to track and report on the spread on COVID-19 in Africa. But this should not end here, this data should inform further actions to curb the virus from overwhelming the African Continent.

Intelligence Neglect in Preventing COVID-19 Spread in Africa

There are two possible assumption here. Either the intelligence community in Africa neglected the warning signs of COVID-19 outbreak in China and its potential to spread to Africa or they recognised it and prompted policymakers of the looming dangers of COVID-19 but were ignored; either way, this is speculative. But daily news on data about the virus spreading across the world should have prompted the Africa Security Council through its Continental Early Warning Systems that the virus could permeate the continent.

This actionable intelligence would naturally take into consideration the peculiar vulnerabilities of the African continent and the likely impact of COVID-19 on the security, economies and livelihood of African states. News of the outbreak COVID-19 in Africa meant that the system neglected to act swiftly to avert same. It is either the Continental Early Warning Systems of the Peace and Security Council of AU lacked the capability to appreciate the epidemic as a national security issue or there was inertia in analysing the intelligence. In the United States, President Trump has been blamed by

8 (https://au.int/ar/taxonomy/term/1472, April 1, 2020 at 22:40hrs, Accra)

Intelligence experts for ignoring the alarms sounded by the intelligence community. President Trump has been accused of neglecting intelligence on COVID-19, several months before US recorded its first case of the virus. At the moment, USA is the new global epicentre of COVID-19.

In Africa, the objectives of the Peace and Security Council of the AU are mainly on the traditional threats to peace, security and stability in the continent. Issues of armed conflicts, abuse of human rights, prevention and management of natural disaster are some of its specific focus due to the history of the violence, abuse of human rights and natural disasters in Africa. As a result of this history, the security intelligence capabilities of the Continental Early Warning Systems of the AU Peace and Security Council have been developed along these threats to identify their early signs and develop systems to curb them. Non-traditional threats such as infectious viruses which threaten human security have not been considered as priority.

What the Data on COVID-19 Reveal About Intelligence Failure in Africa

Data by the AU reveal the following on COVID-19 spread in North Africa as follows:

Algeria has recorded 716 cases with 44 deaths and 77 recoveries. Egypt has recorded 710 cases with 46 and 157. Morocco has recorded 602 cases with 36 deaths and 24 recoveries. Tunisia has recorded 394 cases with 10 deaths and 1 recovery. The proximities of Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia to Italy and Spain (immediate past epicentres of the COVID-19) are widely known. Spain and Italy increased their tallies of COVID-19 and by March 13, 2020, WHO had declared Europe as the global epicentre of Codivd-19.

The high numbers of COVID-19 cases in North Africa are directly connected to the proximity of North Africa to Europe which was the global epicentre. There are four seaports in Algeria and Morocco which connects to fives seaports in Spain and Italy with daily trips of ferries between the two continents. It takes an average of eight (8) hours to travel to Europe from North Africa by ferry and a little over two (2) hours do same by air. Intelligence on proximity of Europe and North Africa, volume of passenger and cargo traffic between the two continents ought to have triggered the “red-flag” of the Continental Early Warning Systems of the AU Peace and Security Council to take immediate steps to avert the introduction of the virus into North Africa and alert all member states of AU to consider certain restrictions on entry of people from COVID-19 affected countries. In the height of COVID-19 spread across the globe, African governments acted too little too late in averting the spread of COVID-19 in Africa.


I wish to propose the creation of Epidemic Intelligence Department (EID) to be included in the functions of the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) of the Africa Union. In the same way that the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS) of the Africa Union is established to anticipate and prevent conflicts on the continent, and to provide timely information about evolving violent conflicts, based on specifically developed indicators, the Epidemic Intelligence Department (EID) will also anticipate epidemics and the possibility of viruses being weaponized by malign actors (terrorists) to attack the continent.

Based on specifically developed indicators and professional protocols of epidemic intelligence, the EID will also collaborate with medical science institutions in Africa to undertake studies on viruses and their impact and the threat they pose to national and the continental security of Africa. The Epidemic Intelligence Department (EID) will operate exclusively on the doctrines of human security which emphasises the well-being, safety and security of the citizens as opposed to the traditional security threat of violent arm conflicts which threatens the territorial integrity of states. This is because epidemic illness can be used as a weapon to undermine military troop strength, police, fire and rescue personnel, health care workers, critical infrastructure and the economic vault of the African continent and make African States vulnerable to both internal and external threats.

The EID will also create various response scenarios for the Africa continent to be deployed during epidemic outbreaks. It will develop operational strategies and operational assurance to improve response time, mobilize and deploy resources for epidemic management and coordinate signals for timely “lockdowns” and other restrictions at regional and continental levels to protect citizens and the economies of Africa from the vagaries of epidemic outbreak. Lessons from Ebola and the ongoing COVID-19 are sufficient history to guide us in the considering this proposal.

In conclusion, I quote a favourite bible scripture which guides me as student of intelligence analysis. Matthew Chapter 13, verse 24; “Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; verse 25: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed bad seeds among the wheat and went his way”. I interpret thereof: the man who sowed the good seed is the policymaker or government. The men who slept are the intelligence professionals. The enemy who came and the bad seeds can be all forms of threats to our health, safety and security and COVID-19 is no exception.

Columnist: Yaro Kasambate
Related Articles: