About a month ago, Juwon Olorunnipa, a Nigerian musician, lay on his bed in a high-rise building in east London thinking COVID-19 would kill him. In an isolation center in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, Oluwaseun Osowobi was putting together a succession plan for her nonprofit organization in case she died.
Both eventually recovered. The infection rates across Africa keep growing—nearly 19,000 people have the coronavirus as of Friday afternoon, and close to 1,000 have died across the continent. But 4,400 have recovered.
Olorunnipa, 30, also known by his stage name Jumabee, traveled from Lagos to London early in March before tougher border restrictions took effect. Looking back, he’s not sure where he picked up the disease, but he admitted he went to shopping malls and punched elevator buttons at his residence without much concern.
At first, Olorunnipa thought his fever was malaria. But on the third day, he woke up at around 3 a.m. struggling to breathe. “I had to use my mouth to breathe,” Olorunnipa said. “That’s when I knew it was a problem.”
His friends called for help, but it took emergency workers hours to arrive. They said they were receiving thousands of calls each day and advised him to take acetaminophen every four hours and stay hydrated.
Olorunnipa said his symptoms only worsened over the next few days: “My whole body felt as if they were sticking my skin with a needle. You wish your head would go off your body just for you to survive.”
He finally checked into a private hospital, where he recovered and later tested negative for the virus. Olorunnipa planned to return to Lagos on March 26, but travel restrictions left him stranded. He said he plans to take advantage of the Nigerian government’s repatriation plan if possible.
The downtime allowed him to review his priorities: “I love perfumes. I was staring at them but I couldn’t use even one. All these things are vanity.”
On March 9, 29-year-old Osowobi attended the Commonwealth Day ceremony in London, where she served as a flag bearer. Days after her return to Lagos, Osowobi started to feel ill and called the Nigerian Center for Disease Control to get tested, she tweeted.
When her test came back positive, an official ambulance took her to an isolation center. Osowobi tried to remain connected with the rest of the world and stay hydrated.
“The nausea, vomit, and stooling was unbearable,” she said. Osowobi started planning who would take over her initiative, Stand to End Rape, which advocates against sexual abuse.
She thanked God for her recovery and hoped her case would help end the stigma against those with the virus.
“Coronavirus is not a death sentence,” Osowobi said. “People can survive, and I have.”
The pandemic could trigger Africa’s first recession in 25 years and cause more food shortages, Elsie Kanza, head of the World Economic Forum in Africa, said during a news conference on Thursday.
In the meantime, the World Health Organization’s regional director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, encouraged solidarity and collective action to mitigate the humanitarian effects.
Social distancing rules are difficult to follow in overpopulated settings, but she asked governments to implement them when possible and balance restrictions with other hygiene measures like encouraging people to wear masks and increasing access to clean water.
“We’ve seen in the context of very difficult situations like the Ebola outbreak, people adopt very extreme measures that go against how they would normally behave,” Moeti said. “I have a lot of faith in African people and our communities.”