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Covid-19: WHO says Africa should ‘prepare for the worst’

Friday March 27 2020
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Nairobi health official disinfects stalls at Gikomba market on march 21, 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. WHO has expressed worry about Africa’s preparedness to deal with Covid-19, saying that the continent should “prepare for the worst” as the pandemic begins to spread locally. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ELIZABETH MERAB

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed worry about Africa’s preparedness to deal with the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), saying that the continent should “prepare for the worst” as the pandemic begins to spread locally.

Though the pandemic is in its early days on the continent, health experts have warned that even facilities in a country like South Africa, which has a robust health system, could be overwhelmed by the spread of the virus which has been recorded in 716 people across 31 countries.

Globally the Covid-19 has infected 308,609 people and led to at least 13,000 deaths.

AFRICA WAKE UP

“I think Africa should wake up. My continent should wake up,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who comes from Ethiopia.

The WHO boss said that the number of cases being reported in Africa may not be a true representation because testing is not robust. However, WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said that while that may be the case, those numbers could just be few.

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As the pandemic continues to shift its course from China to Europe and the United States and now Africa, governments are only now realising the potential magnitude of the toll that the virus could have on the continent already struggling with many communicable diseases.

TIGHTEN LOOSE ENDS

For this reason, just like individual governments, the WHO-Afro seems to be trying to tighten its loose ends.

For instance, it is only now that the WHO's regional office for Africa has set out to assess the continent’s capacity to handle critical cases should they arise.

Speaking during a virtual press briefing, Dr Moeti said that they have embarked on collecting information on critical care.

“The continent urgently needs intervention. And we have begun looking into how we can import field hospitals that can be equipped with ventilators and oxygen ports. We are also advising countries to adopt and repurpose existing facilities to handle the first few patients,” said Dr Moeti, as she called on individual countries to come up with domestic funding to help in readiness to handle the imminent spread of the virus.

Crowded conditions in poor areas have been singled out as an aspect which could lead to even faster transmission, with people travelling from cities to rural areas, often by public transport, experts say.

NEW CASES

However, despite the government’s introduction of restrictive measures in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, including closure of schools, ban on entry into the country for non-Kenyans and instructions for anyone who has travelled internationally in the previous 14 days to self-quarantine, news about the number of cases of coronavirus increasing in the country has sent panic waves with many Kenyans living in Nairobi fleeing en masse.

Unknowingly these people could be carrying the virus with them and, in turn, putting those living in the village, especially the elderly, at risk.

Days after President Uhuru Kenyatta announced directives to contain Covid-19 in the country, the Nairobi central business district turned almost into a ghost town as many stayed away from offices and businesses.

There was heavy outbound traffic along the Thika Road on Tuesday morning last week as some people opted to flee the city as a way to escape from the coronavirus pandemic and its ripple effects. On a normal morning, Thika Road is characterised by heavy inbound traffic as commuters head to work.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

There are 645 million people living in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa, according to World Bank data – and three-quarters of them do not have facilities at home to wash their hands with soap and water.

Although there have been no cases in rural Kenya, or anywhere in rural Africa, health experts are concerned about the possible spread of the virus to the villages where there is limited access to sanitation.

“Our major concern is about health workers, especially those who work outside major cities. These are workers who mostly do not have access to the personal protective equipment,” said Dr Michel Yao, WHO Regional Office for Africa’s emergency operations programme manager.

But it is not all doom and gloom as the panel of experts said that lessons derived from the numerous recurrent outbreaks the continent has been experiencing have laid a robust system that can better respond to any surge in cases.

“We will leverage on the Ebola and influenza programme systems we have built over time to avert a bigger crisis that could strain the system,” said Dr Yao.

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