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Africa’s Impossible Task: Preventing the COVID-19 Outbreak in 2 Weeks

On Monday, there were roughly 5,300 registered cases of COVID-19 and over 200 deaths in the African continent.

On 17 July 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Ebola a global health emergency for the fifth time. As the world’s poorest continent continues to fight against this virus and other life-threatening diseases such as HIV and malaria, the first case of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, was confirmed in the region on February 14 in Egypt. It spread faster across the continent than it took for the testing kits to arrive.

In a press release, the WHO urged African nations to take measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in Africa on March 26. In a 10-point strategy, they listed all actions governments could take in the following two weeks. Following this timeline, “there is still time to prevent the outbreak in the region from overwhelming health services,” believes the WHO.

Source: Africa CDC

Ticking time bomb

Unfortunately, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has warned that the COVID-19 outbreak may lead to a socio-economic collapse in developing countries. In a report published on Monday, the UNDP expects a loss of more than 200bn euros in income. “Africa will undoubtedly be hit harder than anywhere else on Earth,” wrote Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Regional Director for Africa on their website. “With long-lasting impacts that will be nothing short of catastrophic.”

The continent has been fighting hunger and poverty over the years, devastated by epidemies and wars. If rich countries are struggling to respond to the virus, Africa, which has less medics and resources, expects to be hardly hit. Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounts for roughly 60 percent of the global population living in poverty in 2020. Organisations around the world are calling for help to prevent Africa’s economic and social collapse.

“Africa may lose half of its GDP with growth falling from 3.2 percent to about 2 percent,” said UN’ Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Executive Secretary Vera Songwe. “Negative consequences are expected to worsen if COVID-19 develops into an outbreak in Africa, reads ECA’s latest report.

Impossible lockdowns

For Ivorian sociologist Francis Akindès, only lockdowns would stop the spread of the virus, he told Jeune Afrique. As of today, nearly half of the world population is in lockdown. Unfortunately, Africa is unable to cope with this solution to fight the pandemic. This would destabilize already-fragile states. This is the logic Benin President Patrice Talon used to justify the impossibility to enforce confinement in the country, as he considers it counterproductive. Only Congo, Zimbabwe and Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo have enforced a lockdown.

Akindès explains that 70 percent of the citizens in Côte d’Ivoire live in slums and precarious districts. For that strata of the population, social isolation and lockdowns are not an option. For instance, over 80 percent of the workforce in Kenya is product of informal jobs.

Jan. 14, 2020, Abattoir neighborhood, Abidjan. Improvised clinic in a house where 15 people live. The hospital was demolished on July 2, 2018, as part of Côte d’Ivoire’s forced evictions project. Over 6800 people remain homeless in the neighborhood and rely on daily sells to eat. They cannot stay anywhere if a lockdown was to be enforced. Isabel Bonnet / Rostra

African nations have, however, reacted faster than other countries to prevent the outbreak from getting worse. The majority of the countries have closed schools and universities, as well as airports. In Morocco, Egypt and Algeria, where Islam is the largest religious group, mosques have been closed. Curfews are enforced in seven countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania, Gabon and Madagascar.

In the past, it has been found that the spread of Ebola accelerated during cultural practices among communities. Countries that have had to cope with Ebola may see this as an opportunity to adapt to the measures they took to control this virus epidemic, and reciprocate them to prevent the COVID-19 from spreading. Other countries such as South Africa, however, have not been affected by Ebola which may be a lesson they could learn from their neighbors. “There is a mentality of if we die, we die, but we’re going to have a good time,” told Mr Kgasago, a South African from Johannesburg, to The Economist

Lack of testing kits

As specified in the WHO website, only two countries in Africa had the testing kits for the COVID-19 two weeks ago. Therefore, it was impossible to detect whether people had the virus before. Today, 47 out of 54 countries in the continent have received testing kits, for which only 5 African nations had no reported case of coronavirus. Two of those nations are islands, which are harder to reach: São Tomé and Principe and Comoros.

While many scientists believe testing is the only solution to control the virus from spreading in Africa, the lack of funds, health system and training can lead to catastrophic outcomes. “Not many countries have commercial or large-scale production of these kits, and certainly in Africa we don’t have that,” said Dr. Ahmed Kalebi to VOA News, a lead consultant pathologist at Lancet Group of Laboratories.

Malnutrition and diseases may lead to more deaths

Three out of ten people in Africa are between 10 and 14 years old. The median age of the continent is 19. It is known that the youth is less likely to experience symptoms or have complications if infected with COVID-19.

However, scientists are worried African nations may have more deaths than other countries due to the coronavirus because of the high prevalence of malnutrition and diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among the people who are at higher risk are those with HIV or AIDS. Out of 34 million HIV-positive people worldwide, 69 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, the continent is also fighting the ongoing Ebola virus epidemic, which only adds up to the list of sanitary issues the nations have to fight against.

The bet on chloroquine: Africa’s light of hope

Dr. Didier Raoult, a French physician and microbiologist,  supported the claim that Hydroxychloroquine and Azithromycin were effective in treating COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are used to prevent and treat malaria. Ninety percent of the population infected with malaria lives in the African region.

According to the WHO, 37 malaria-endemic countries in Africa had reported cases of the disease as of 25 March. While the effectiveness of the use of chloroquine and its derivative, hydroxychloroquine, is not determined yet, some countries have already started to approve its use to treat COVID-19. For instance, France’s authorities and Jordan’s Food and Drug Administration have approved Hydroxychloroquine for seriously ill patients. Other countries, however, have decided to use it for any infected person. Morocco and Senegal are two of them. The Moroccan government has ordered its multinational to stock-up on Nivaquine and Plaquenil, two medications containing Chloroquine. After its 200th case, Burkina Faso’s authorities have decided to use chloroquine to treat patients, followed by Benin.

Given Africa’s supply in Hydroxychloroquine and Chloroquine, if the medication is found to successfully work, it may be a light of hope to treat serious cases of COVID-19.


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