Editor’s Note: Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak is a professor of economics at Yale University and Rifaiyat Mahbub is the program manager of the Yale Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

Epidemiologists had expected weak health systems in Africa to crumble under the weight of Covid-19. Eight months into the pandemic, Africa with a population of 1.3 billion, reported nearly 1.8 million Covid infections, while the US, on its way to its third peak, has reported more than nine million cases.

While some of this low reporting could be attributed to poor testing, Africa as a continent appears to have handled the pandemic more effectively than the US has.

As of November 1, Rwanda and Senegal, for example, have reported 0.28 and 2.04 Covid deaths per 100,000 people respectively, while the corresponding number for the US is a staggering 70.4.

Rwandans are now allowed to travel to Europe, while Americans remain prohibited.

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How Rwanda is successfully dealing with coronavirus
01:56 - Source: CNN

Countries that have managed to contain Covid-19 have attained greater normalcy in their lives, while the everyday activities of ordinary Americans remain constrained, their lives lessened and threatened.

This great reversal of fortune is stunning when one accounts for the immense differences in wealth in these two locations.

Scientists are puzzling over the underlying factors driving Africa’s success – is it the relatively young population, lower connectivity to disease epicenters, cross-reactive immunities, or differences in lifestyle?

While many factors contribute to differences in Covid-19 outcomes, there are striking differences in the quality of leadership, disaster preparedness, conformity to scientific advice, and coherence in pandemic response strategies that appear to have played important roles.

Inspiring civic duty

Tackling this pandemic effectively requires collective behavior change and instilling a sense of civic duty. Leaders must inspire citizens to make sacrifices to protect one another. President Macky Sall of Senegal decided to self-quarantine even after testing negative for SARS-COV2, only because he was exposed.

In contrast, several of US government leaders continue to ignore basic social distancing and mask guidelines set by their own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They continue to host large rallies, and have encouraged people to gather in groups and protest against social distancing. This is a failure of leadership.

Aggressive lockdown measures

The experience of dealing with prior epidemics prompted several African leaders to quickly enact aggressive measures that closed airports in mid-March and restricted people’s movement to slow the spread of coronavirus. Senegal, Rwanda, Mauritius and Liberia began planning their COVID response as soon as the virus alerts were sent internationally and began screening and quarantining travelers at the airport. Ghana and Nigeria banned travel between cities and implemented curfews.

Within a week of its first reported case, Kenya shut its schools, banned gatherings, and enforced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for incoming travelers. South Africa implemented one of the toughest lockdowns in the world.

In contrast, the US was slow to react, and remained indecisive. Although the federal government banned travel by foreign nationals from China and eventually other countries, including parts of the EU, they failed to follow it up with any coherent plan, continued denying the severity of Covid, and made unscientific statements about how the virus will disappear like a miracle. There were failures at both the federal and state levels.

Using expertise and evidence

Another key difference between the leadership of many African nations and the US is the extent to which people with public health policy and pandemic expertise were allowed to set guidelines.

Many African countries focused on expanding testing capacity on the advice of epidemiologists. WHO and its technical partners sourced more than