How Africa is preparing to face the coronavirus
How Africa is preparing to face the coronavirus

While Egypt announced the first case of coronavirus in mid-February, several African countries, drawing on their experience in managing the Ebola epidemic, have taken measures to prevent the spread of the disease. A challenge for this continent where the health system is failing. 

The assessment of the new coronavirus continues to increase. It is approaching 1,900 dead in mainland China where more than 72,300 people have been infected, according to the latest official figures released Tuesday, February 18. Despite drastic measures –  containment of several cities, construction of hospitals in record time – taken by the Chinese authorities to prevent its spread, around thirty countries have been affected by the viral epidemic of pneumonia, renamed Covid-19. Nearly 900 cases of contamination have been confirmed outside of mainland China.

So far spared, the African continent recorded its first case on Friday in Egypt. The patient, who is not an Egyptian national and had no symptoms, was immediately hospitalized and quarantined, the Egyptian health ministry said.

This first case detected on the continent caused great concern. Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt have been able to repatriate their nationals from China in recent weeks. But many countries on the continent lack adequate structures to deal with the virus.

“A fragile health system”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), only six countries in Africa, including Senegal, South Africa and Nigeria, currently have laboratories capable of testing the samples taken from possible suspected cases. Very little for a continent of 1.2 billion inhabitants. 

“A new virus is still a challenge and most laboratories in Africa do not have the essential equipment they need to test for a new pathogen,” said Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

And without adequate means, some countries may not be able to detect the virus. The organization, therefore, said in a statement that it had sent “kits to 29 laboratories in the region, which will allow them to have a diagnostic capacity for the new coronavirus and also be able to test samples from neighboring countries”.

“We know how fragile the health system is on the African continent and these systems are already overwhelmed by many ongoing epidemics, so it is essential for us to detect earlier so that we can prevent the spread,” explained to BBC  Michael Yao, WHO emergency operations manager in Africa. 

Given the close ties that Africa has with China, it was unlikely that the continent would escape the virus.

The Ebola experience

Some countries have therefore strengthened preventive measures at airports. Highlighting their experience in managing the Ebola epidemic, countries like Nigeria have deployed passenger body temperature detection devices, such as thermal imaging cameras. In Senegal, the government has set up a toll-free number for populations since the end of January.

“Since the beginning of the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, WHO and partners have helped high-risk countries to prepare for possible Ebola cases. These efforts, which have enabled strengthening the capacities for surveillance and treatment of infectious cases can also contribute to the fight against the new coronavirus, “notes the institution. 

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also one of the 13 priority countries identified in Africa by the WHO on the basis of the large volume of travel to China and for which vigilance must be increased. 

Other countries like Mozambique and Equatorial Guinea have taken much more drastic measures. The first suspended in January the issuance of visas to Chinese and Mozambicans wishing to go to Maputo or Beijing. And the second decided to systematically quarantine, for 14 days, travelers from Chinese cities. Egypt also suspended its national airline’s flights to China in early February and quarantined around 300 Egyptians evacuated from Wuhan.

However, these measures go against the recommendations of the WHO, which found the closure of the borders with China to be counterproductive. On Monday, the Organization wanted to be reassuring, warning against any disproportionate measure. According to its director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, more than 80% of patients suffered from a mild form of the disease. Outside the Chinese province of Hubei (center), the epicenter of the epidemic, Covid-19 disease “affects a very small proportion of the population” and its fatality rate is currently only around 2 %.

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