COVID-19 pandemic in Africa: Challenges galore
April 15, 2020

By IAT Bureau / New Delhi

According to South China Morning Post the first case of novel coronavirus in China, can be traced back to November 17, 2019. During the last five months, COVID-19 that originated from Wuhan, China, reached to 210 Countries and Territories around the world infecting more than 2 million people and killing more than 0.12 million.

In Africa, the coronavirus pandemic made its entry on 14 February 2020, with the first confirmed case in Egypt. In sub-Saharan Africa the first confirmed case was in Nigeria. Most of these cases arrived from Europe and the United States rather than from China. According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) there are now more than 16,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in 52 countries, and more than 800 people have died (as on April 15).

According to WHO, while the virus was slow to reach the continent compared to other parts of the world, but infection has grown exponentially in recent weeks and continues to spread. “COVID-19 has the potential not only to cause thousands of deaths, but to also unleash economic and social devastation”, warned Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.  She called for communities to be empowered by local authorities, and for provincial and district levels of government to ensure that they have the resources and expertise to respond to outbreaks.

Let’s have a look how world’s poorest continent is battling against the health crisis:

Financial and Technical support: Africa continue to depend heavily on multilateral agencies for investment in its health infrastructure and services. In the aftermath of the West Africa Ebola crisis, the World Bank had launched the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement (REDISSE) Project to strengthen health systems and support effective disease surveillance in 16 West and Central African countries. The closing date of the project is January 31, 2023 and the commitment amount is US$ 110.00 million. To specifically fight COVID-19 pandemic, till first week of April, nearly $370 million has been approved or dispersed by the World Bank in 10 African countries, with more to come in the next weeks and months.

Since the start of the outbreak the World Health Organization (WHO) has been supporting African governments with early detection by providing thousands of COVID-19 testing kits to countries, training dozens of health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities. Forty-seven countries in the WHO African region, as of now, can test for COVID-19. At the start of the outbreak only two could do so. To help combat the virus, WHO is working with governments across Africa to boost surveillance, testing, isolation, contact tracing, infection prevention and control, together with risk communication and community engagement.

Lessons learnt from Ebola: Experts believe that the experience of battling Ebola (2014) could be of great help to some African countries while preparing for COVID-19. A strong response to COVID-19 will require building on the lessons learnt during the earlier epidemic. Also, swift detection, early testing and rapid response require cross-border collaboration and strong solidarity among neighboring African countries to combat the spread of infectious diseases, as seen in the past.

Fear of ‘exploiting’ Africa for vaccine research: Recently, Professors Jean-Paul Mira and Camille Locht from France, have been accused of racism after a TV debate in which one suggested trials in Africa to see if a tuberculosis vaccine would prove effective against coronavirus. The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has strongly condemned the comments made by them. Dr. John Nkengasong, Director, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement, “Professors Mira and Locht have no lessons to teach Africa on the conduct of scientifically sound clinical trials. Africans have extremely capable world-renowned scientists who have played critical leadership roles in conducting clinical trials that have benefited the continent and beyond.” The racist comments were widely criticised, by among others the World Health Organization (WHO) and football stars Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba who said “Africa isn’t a testing lab.” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Africa can’t and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine, we will follow all the rules to test any vaccine or therapeutics all over the world using exactly the same rules.”

Misinformation on social media: Just after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa several posts and videos have started circulating on social media platforms spreading misinformation. In a video clip, a man having a swab stuck up his nose, says, “Do not under any circumstances allow them to test you. There’s a possibility that the swabs are contaminated with Covid-19.” He alleges that people globally are saying the swabs are being used to spread the virus, and refers to reports in the UK that test kits there were contaminated. Also, there are several social media posts claiming that African people are to be used as guinea pigs to test a new coronavirus vaccine. There are also reports and ‘studies’ claiming that Black skin is resistant to Covid-19 or a cup of black tea can help cure coronavirus. In some posts, an old graphic created by the US health authorities about facial hair and respirators has been used incorrectly to suggest men should shave off their beards to avoid catching the coronavirus. Infact, the Nigerian Punch newspaper’s headline said: “To be safe from coronavirus, shave your beard, CDC warns”.

WFP/Tatenda Macheka A mother homeschools her children in Shamva district, Zimbabwe, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Source: News.un.org)

While a number of African countries are imposing a range of prevention and containment measures against the spread of the pandemic, they have to face several challenges, particularly the poor health infrastructure, financial instability, and the spread of misinformation regarding the pandemic, which is making it tough for health agencies to ensure strict implementation of social isolation regulations and expand the scope of testing and treatment of novel corona.

Hopefully, there would be collective international cooperation through a collaborative and respectful approach to fight the global pandemic. The African Union Commission need to step up its responsibility and effectively lead the continent-wide joint strategy and the African Taskforce for Novel Coronavirus to support preparedness and response by African Union Member States to the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Featured Image credit: WHO/D. Elombat Passenger screening at Maya Maya international airport, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.)

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