After a slow start, a sudden increase of more than 40% in the number of Covid-19 cases on the continent in the past 10 days – to 28,000 – and a similar increase in the number of deaths – to 1,300 – has worried the specialists.
The World Health Organization has warned of 10 million cases on the continent within three to six months, although experts say the death toll could be lower if authorities could move quickly to contain the disease outbreaks.
“We are at the beginning in Africa,” said Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergency management program, last week.
While some of the worst effects of the infection can be mitigated by the relative youth of many people on the continent, others can be made more vulnerable by malnutrition or existing conditions, such as HIV.
Resource-poor health systems are unlikely to cope with a large increase in the number of people infected with the disease. The provision of intensive care services on the continent is extremely insufficient. Many countries with tens of millions of people have only a handful of fans.
So far, it has been difficult to fully grasp the extent of the spread of the disease in Africa, as testing has been uneven.
Djibouti has recorded 98.6 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest prevalence on the continent. But the small country has carried out just over 10,000 tests, as much as neighboring Ethiopia, which has more than 100 million inhabitants.
South Africa, which currently has the highest number of cases in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 4,000, performs up to 10,000 tests per day to detect and isolate the disease before it can settle in overcrowded townships where a third of the 56 million inhabitants live.
The strategy builds on South Africa’s long experience in fighting other infectious diseases and its extensive network of community health workers, but recognizes that social distancing is not always possible in neighborhoods dense and poor.
Last week Cyril Ramaphosa, who imposed one of the world’s toughest bans in South Africa four weeks ago, announced what he called a gradual and gradual resumption of economic activity.
“We cannot act today that we will deeply regret tomorrow [but] our people need to eat. They need to make a living, “said Ramaphosa in a TV address.
However, only minor changes have been made to the strict regime – enforced by soldiers and police – and there are fears of a new wave of infections with the winter of the southern hemisphere approaching.
Advisers say a test-based strategy allows African countries to minimize the bottlenecks that cause enormous hardship for those who depend on the income earned every day to feed themselves and their families. Earlier last week, Ramaphosa announced a $ 26 billion social and economic assistance program.
South Africa, of course, is an exception. Few African countries can find funding for wellness programs on this scale, and most have “very, very limited” and “very, very tense” testing capacity, said John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers disease control and prevention.
In the two months following the mobilization of the continent to fight the epidemic, less than 500,000 tests were carried out on the population of more than a billion inhabitants, a level lower than that of Italy, one of the most affected countries in the world.
“If you don’t test, you don’t find. And if you don’t test, you’re blinded, ”said Nkengasong. “It’s a tough battle to build health systems while you need them … That’s what we are doing right now. We are playing catch-up and it is a very, very difficult thing to do. “
Even in the best of cases, the United Nations says that 74 million people will need 74 million test kits and 30,000 ventilators this year.
Obtaining such equipment has been made more difficult by the export restrictions imposed on medical articles by more than 70 countries. Travel bans have closed borders and airports, blocking supply chains.
In Nigeria, the most populous state in Africa, the government has announced a “test, treat, trace and isolate” strategy.
Before the pandemic, Nigeria had only 350 ventilators, most in the private sector. A hundred more have been purchased in the past few weeks, although many other bottlenecks, such as a critical shortage of specialized health workers, remain.
Dr. Sani Aliyu, Nigeria’s national coordinator for the Covid-19 presidential task force, said officials are well aware of the problems of isolation in a country where many of the 200 million people have to leave their homes every day to earn enough for their livelihood.
To alleviate the threat of food shortages, the government has released huge amounts of grain from national reserves and distributed 100 trucks of rice across the country, as well as the approval of conditional cash transfers.
But Aliyu admitted that such assistance “was probably going to be a drop in the bucket over what is needed.”