Cape Town — "This is one of the biggest health challenges Africa has faced in a generation. Adopting approaches which are adaptable to the African context is key to containing the spread."
These are the words of Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa who says the COVID-19 pandemic is a reality we must face up-front.
As of March 19, 34 African countries reported more than 600 cases and 17 deaths due to COVID-19, with the Gambia, Mauritius, Zambia having announced their first cases.
Speaking at the WHO Africa Media Leader briefing on COVID-19, Moeti said the reasons the virus has not spread as quickly in Africa, as it has in the Northern hemisphere, are not yet clear. But indicated that, although WHO is still monitoring and analysing what has been done in different regions, it encourages strong early precautionary measures to halt the circulation of the novel coronavirus.
"Our main interest is to help the countries contain this and delay or prevent local community spread of the virus. It is true that the socio-economic circumstance of many African people particularly in urban areas, makes social distancing the way it is recommended quite a challenge. Sometimes families live in houses where you don't have a bedroom for every family member. Some do not have running water which makes frequently handwashing with soap a challenge under those circumstances," Moeti said.
A new Afrobaromater analysis now shows that more than half of Africans say their governments are failing them when it comes to the provision of clean water and sanitation services.
To address this problem, WHO is recommending approaches that are adaptable to these circumstances. Dr Moeti says WHO is working with partners and with governments to make sanitizers available to health facility users and families.
So far, WHOAfro has been supporting governments with early detection by providing COVID-19 testing kits, training lab technicians, and strengthening surveillance in communities. As a result of this, at least 45 countries in Africa can now test for COVID-19. At the beginning of the outbreak, only two countries could do so.
WHO is also providing remote support to affected countries on the use of electronic data tools, so national health authorities can better understand the outbreak in their countries. Personal protective equipment has been shipped to 24 countries, and a second shipment is being prepared for countries with confirmed cases, according to a WHO report.
WHOAfro is recommending focused testing of all people with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, Moeti said: "This would enable countries to know as early as possible where infected people are, and initiate social distancing, self-isolation and hygiene measures that are so very important to preventing onward transmission."
She acknowledged, however, that there are not enough testing kits in Africa, or anywhere in the world for this level of testing but WHO continues to focus on this area and required more "intensive work, international collaboration, public and private partnership".
So far the World Bank is making available up to U.S.$12 billion to assist countries in coping with the health and economic impacts of the global COVID-19 outbreak.
Through this new fast track package, the World Bank seeks to help developing countries strengthen health systems, including better access to health services to safeguard people from the epidemic, strengthen disease surveillance, bolster public health interventions, and work with the private sector to reduce the impact on economies.
"COVID-19 is one of the biggest health challenges Africa has faced in a generation," said Dr. Moeti. "We can only stop this virus through solidarity. And the world is coming together. Donors are stepping up to the plate and providing funding while the private sector in many countries are offering their support as well."