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WHO: Half of Africa’s countries can still avoid a serious outbreak

There is still a chance for up to half of all African countries to avoid a serious outbreak of Covid-19, said the World Health Organisation on Thursday.

Addressing a virtual press conference from Brazzaville, the WHO’s regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said: “We still have a window. It’s true that it is narrowing every day, as the data about the geographic spread is telling us, but in just over half of the region we still only have imported cases. We have not yet identified that local spread is occurring … we still could contain this virus in many countries.”

There are some countries with humanitarian needs, with armed conflicts, with massive displacement of population. Also those countries receiving refugees. Those countries have special needs.

As of Thursday afternoon, 2 746 cases of Covid-19 had been recorded in 31 African countries, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

To prevent a serious outbreak, Moeti said that border closures need to be accompanied by urgent and effective public health interventions.

“That’s where we need to put our efforts. Daily follow-up with people in self-isolation; [ensuring the] public is very well informed and complies; and that those people who have been identified as infected with the virus are really isolated,” said Moeti.

Moeti commended African states that have shown political commitment to fighting the spread of the pandemic. She singled out Cote D’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Uganda for praise. However, she said that the WHO was very worried about countries that are already dealing with conflict or other political crises.

“There are some countries with humanitarian needs, with armed conflicts, with massive displacement of population. Also those countries receiving refugees. Those countries have special needs. We think these countries need significant support and that will be a challenge for us. This includes not less than five countries in our region,” she said.

Moeti said that the continent has expanded its capacity to test for Covid-19. Earlier this year, just two African countries – Senegal and South Africa – had laboratories with the necessary equipment. Now, 44 African countries are able to conduct tests. However, there is still a shortage of testing kits on the continent, but the WHO does not think that means that huge numbers of infections are being missed.

“We do know there have been hundreds of alerts of people with possible contacts or symptoms that have been tested in African countries, and many of them found not to be positive. We recognise there are people who might be asymptomatic, but we don’t believe there are widespread numbers of people undetected. We have an influenza surveillance network in 23 countries and it has not reported an uptick in the symptoms associated with this disease,” said Moeti.

One major challenge that the WHO has identified is what happens if the coronavirus spreads into informal settlements and other densely populated areas on the continent. Dr John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking at the same briefing, said: “I don’t think we know the answer, but we have to work closely with our communities on this … Our communities are what they are. We have to think through the issue of social distancing through our own cultural and social leanings. We have recognised that this is an important health measure that must be implemented if we are to have a chance to defeat this enemy.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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