COVID-19, between Europe and Africa

by Harriet and Sellma

NB: As of today, Ghana has also issued a travel restriction to visitors from countries with high incidences of COVID-19

As COVID-19 cases rapidly increase in the western world, governments scramble to keep minimum composure and contain public panic. Scientists around the world are puzzled at how sub-Saharan African is relatively unaffected by the virus. More so, what it shows about our global ability to handle shocks to the globalised health system.

On the 28th February 2020, the first official case of Coronavirus (COVID-19) was found in Egypt and for Sub-Saharan Africa, the first country was Nigeria. Since then, there have been other cases found in Algeria, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya and more. Before finding the first case, the African Union (AU) convened a meeting with Africa Centre of Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the health ministers of various African countries. Together, discussed how African nations can become more prepared and what a response to the Coronavirus outbreak should look like. With WHO, Africa CDC identified countries that are potentially high risk and trained 16 African laboratories to be able to diagnose Coronavirus using Polymerase Chain Reaction. This training will be done in a further 15 countries. Africa CDC also intends to increase testing capacity, improve the movement of samples and train more epidemiologists. The overall goal is to increase diagnostic capabilities and to manage suspected, confirmed and contact cases more efficiently.

The inaction displayed by European and American governments caused WHO to declare the coronavirus a global pandemic this week, with Europe not China, being declared as the epicentre. As cases in East-Asia are now being contained and are slowly declining, the present-day epicentre moved to Northern Italy. In less than 21 days, the Italian healthcare system has been overwhelmed. Some hospitals are reaching 200% capacity alongside overworked and overstretched healthcare professionals . Experts estimate other European countries are less than 2 weeks away from the current situation in Italy. It is clear that we, in the West, have underestimated the scale to which the pandemic would affect our daily lives.

Once an outbreak was declared there was an immediate focus on countries with fragile health systems like most African nations. This may be one of the many reasons why the number of cases on the continent has remained relatively low. Some of the preventative measures have seen many African airlines e.g. Air Maroc, RwandAir and Kenya Airway, have introduced screening at airports. Similar to American and European airlines, African airlines have also chosen to suspend their China routes (though not Ethiopian Airlines, it continues flying its Chinese routes).

There are other nations like Uganda who have restricted visitors from countries that have high incidences of Coronavirus like China and the UK. Although this may mitigate some risk, the current evidence suggests that travel restrictions have a limited impact in containing epidemics and delaying spread. WHO has again advised against travel restrictions or trade bans with countries experiencing Coronavirus outbreak as these actions have significant economic and social repercussions.

The question many are asking: Why are the incidences of Coronavirus on the African continent so low? Are we not testing enough people? Could it be that the continent was acutely aware of the potential of this virus because of the 2014 Ebola outbreak? Some of the isolation structures that were carried over from the 2014 Ebola outbreak have proven to be essential to ensure potentially infected patients receive prompt treatments and slow the spread of the virus. Or more simply the virus itself? It does have an incubation period of 14 days so people could have it, not have symptoms, have yet to be tested and so yet to be counted.

What this current outbreak shows, though there are improvements, it exposes many areas within national (and global) health systems that need to be reinforced e.g. surveillance systems, diagnostic testing, personnel and supply chains of equipment. It shows that globally in spite of all the advances we have made, we were not ready.

References:

ABC7 San Francisco. 2020. Coronavirus: How Asian Countries Decreased Rate Of COVID-19 Spread. [online] Available at: <https://abc7news.com/6009650/> [Accessed 13 March 2020].

African Union, 2020. Outbreak Brief #4: Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Global Epidemic — 11 February 2020. [Online]

Available at: https://au.int/en/documents/20200211/outbreak-brief-4-novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-global-epidemic-11-february-2020 [Accessed 4 March 2020].

AUC Chairperson, 2020. Statement by the Chairperson on preparedness and response to the coronavirus disease in Africa. [Online]

Available at: https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20200222/statement-chairperson-preparedness-and-response-coronavirus-disease-africa [Accessed 2020 March 4].

Gilbert, M. et al., 2020. Preparedness and vulnerability of African countries against importations of COVID-19: a modelling study. The Lancet.

Horowitz, J., 2020. Italy’S Health Care System Groans Under Coronavirus — A Warning To The World. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/world/europe/12italy-coronavirus-health-care.html?0p19G=3248> [Accessed 13 March 2020].

Makoni, M., 2020. Africa prepares for coronavirus. Lancet, 15 Febuary, 295(10223), p. 483.

M’Bida, A., 2020. Coronavirus : l’Afrique met la Chine en quarantaine. [Online]

Available at: https://www.jeuneafrique.com/889706/economie/coronavirus-lafrique-met-la-chine-en-quarantaine/ [Accessed 8 March 2020].

Siddiqui, U., 2020. Coronavirus outbreak ‘getting bigger’: All the latest updates. [Online]

Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/coronavirus-outbreak-latest-updates-200227234556140.html [Accessed 4 March 2020].

Vaughan, A., 2020. We don’t know why so few covid-19 cases have been reported in Africa. [Online]

Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2236760-we-dont-know-why-so-few-covid-19-cases-have-been-reported-in-africa/ [Accessed 12 March 2020].

Who.int. 2020. WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks At The Media Briefing On COVID-19–11 March 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020> [Accessed 13 March 2020].

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