Southern Africa: SADC Region Responds to Covid-19 Pandemic

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and the SADC region is doing just that to combat the novel coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19.

The priority for SADC Member States in their response to COVID-19 has focused on the health and wellbeing of the public and has involved efforts to strengthen the public health systems while implementing measures to curtail the spread of the virus, amid concerns that national medical facilities could be overwhelmed as the virus spreads.

As of 1 April, the SADC region had reported 1,776 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 56 recoveries, with 24 deaths attributed to the virus.

These figures are significantly lower when compared with the global spread of the virus, but rising steadily with increased testing of reported cases.

More than 4,000 Covid-19 cases have been reported in Africa, with 135 deaths in at least 46 countries. While most of the cases reported initially were returning residents or visitors, this may be due to the strict testing that identified cases at airports, and the virus is now spreading locally.

Most African countries are now moving from readiness to response.

The Africa regional office of the World Health Organization has said that sub-Saharan Africa still has a "narrowing" opportunity to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and urged African governments to invest their efforts into aggressively tracing all contacts of imported cases, while "preparing for a possible, broader expansion of the virus."

The regional response to this public health challenge has been resolute in southern Africa, with SADC Health Ministers holding an Extraordinary Meeting on 9 March in Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania to chart a coordinated response.

They decided to reconstitute the Technical Committee for Coordinating and Monitoring the Implementation of the SADC Protocol on Health, made up of senior public health officials from SADC Member States operating under expanded terms of reference that include strengthening the regional response to COVID-19 and other threats to public health.

The Health Ministers urged Member States to institute Peer Review Mechanisms to validate self-assessment reports on readiness, as concerns have been raised on the capacity of some SADC Member States to deliver healthcare services that adequately respond to such a threat.

The meeting requested international cooperating partners to support Member States in the development and implementation of country plans as well as in resource mobilization for health-related infrastructure development.

The SADC Health Ministers proposed the suspension of traditional face-to-face meetings, recommending virtual options such as video conferencing and online meetings. This recommendation has since been adopted, with a number of bigger meetings and conferences being postponed.

The SADC Council of Ministers meeting on 18 March was held via video conference for the first time in the history of the regional community as Member States embraced innovative alternatives in the face of adversity.

In her address to the Council of Ministers the SADC Executive Secretary, Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax commended Member States for the "rigorous measures taken in response to this global pandemic.

She urged SADC citizens to abide by measures pronounced by regional leaders, adding that "efforts to combat COVID-19 will only succeed if everyone plays their part."

Member States have set up emergency response contacts and dedicated medical facilities to deal with the coronavirus as it exerts additional pressure on already strained public health systems.

Initially, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 30 January declared this coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, "with potential significant impacts."

However, as the public health situation deteriorated further, the WHO escalated the emergency and on 11 March declared it a pandemic.

Medical experts stress that COVID-19 is highly contagious, and can be spread through various ways. One of the transmission mechanisms is through nasal or saliva droplets released when an infected person coughs or exhales. The virus can be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects in both public and private places.

It is for this reason that regional and global efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 have focused on promoting social distancing and hygiene, particularly sanitising or thoroughly washing hands with soap and running water.

According to the WHO, the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough, although some patients may have a runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion and diarrhoea among other aches and pains. It is also possible for a person to be infected but not exhibit symptoms for up to 14 days.

This explains why most SADC Member States and other countries in the world now require international travellers from affected regions to self-quarantine for a period of at least 14 days from the date of arrival. There is neither a vaccine nor known cure to treat the pandemic.

There are almost one million cases of COVID-19 globally, and almost 50,000 deaths to date. The virus is spreading fast in Europe and the United States, which has reported the most cases, while Asian countries that contained the virus earlier this year are now starting to get back to work, notably in China, although travel remains restricted.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia, has told African countries to "wake up" and "prepare for the worst" during a news conference in Geneva.

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