Dar es Salaam/Brazzaville — Ministers of Health from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) this week agreed to harmonize and coordinate their efforts to respond to COVID-19 in the region. South Africa - a member of the SADC - confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 5th March, the first country and so far only country in southern Africa to do so.
Since COVID-19 was declared to be a public health emergency of international concern in February, country preparedness levels in the WHO African region have been self-assessed. To increase the rigor and reliability of the self-assessment process, SADC Health Ministers agreed to submit their survey results to peer review. These survey results shape Member State response planning and the assistance they receive from the World Health Organization (WHO).
"We agree that although only one country in the SADC region has reported confirmed cases on COVID-19, SADC countries will shift to response mode," said Dr. Stragomena Tax, SADC Secretary General. "Member states need to institute peer review mechanisms to validate self-assessment reports on readiness and requested national cooperation partners through WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control to support Member States in the development and implementation of country plans."
Levels of preparedness vary considerably between SADC countries, and WHO is working with Member States to address gaps in prevention, impact mitigation and other intervention with emergency and contingency funds.
"A problem shared is a problem halved. SADC countries need to share the capacities available to them as much as possible - nationally and regionally,' said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. 'As we have seen with other health emergencies, there is a lot of expertise in the region. If countries have capacities in a particular area, they can support their neighbours."
Ten of the sixteen SADC Member States also agreed to share information on the COVID-19 outbreak. "We have re-established and expanded the terms of reference for the technical committee responsible for coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the SADC Protocol on Health, comprising of directors of public health and directors of medical services," said Ummy Mwalimu, Health Minister of Tanzania, who chaired the meeting. Attending ministers also agreed to suspend regional face-to-face meetings in favour of internet-based conferences.
Dr Devanand Moonasar, Acting Chief Director for Communicable Diseases at South Africa's National Health Department said the unified approach taken by China presented a valuable lesson for Africa, specifically around the value of a skilled workforce, dedicated resources and efficient and transparent data reporting and sharing practices. "I think that China's efforts in lowering the numbers in the way that they did is quite remarkable and should be lauded," said Dr. Moonasar.
While high-level coordination is vital to effectively respond to COVID-19, simple, day-to-day measures are essential too. These include regular hand washing with soap and water; coughing or sneezing into a tissue or a bent elbow, being sure to safely dispose of the tissue afterwards; maintaining a social distance of at least one metre, particularly if that person if coughing; avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth; and seeking medical attention early if a person develops a fever or cough.