Inaccessible tests, failing health systems, containment measures impossible to apply: despite the low official contamination rates, the continent has had all the difficulties in fighting the disease.
It is the poor relation of the global coronavirus pandemic, in every sense of the term: the one where the number of infections turns out to be the lowest (officially, the figure hovers around 4,000), but also the one where the Detection mechanisms – hospitalizations, tests – such as the capacity to welcome and treat potential patients remain the most precarious. Despite these structural handicaps, government responses are getting tougher every day, like the confinement of populations in Nigeria in the megalopolises of Lagos or Abuja, where tens of millions of people live in deplorable conditions of hygiene and access to public health.
The coronavirus is spreading across the continent. As of March 30, 46 African countries were affected by the virus. Containment measures are becoming more widespread as the African Union and WHO try to organize the response to the pandemic. Many fear a disaster to come.
The contamination is not yet lightning but it no longer spares the African continent. As of March 30, the WHO Africa Office has recorded 4,613 cases of Covid-19 and 131 deaths. Of the continent’s 54 states, 46 are now infected with the virus. A less dramatic situation than in Europe and the United States. But no doubt also, very largely underestimated.
Many countries have informed their populations of the barrier measures to be respected, more or less followed: “here in Douala (Cameroon, note) , almost everyone is outside,” said Pauline, a resident, at the end of March.
As of mid-March, several countries like Rwanda have adopted partial containment measures. They have spread in East, Southern, Central, West, Sahel and North Africa: limited travel, closure of restaurants and cafes, introduction of a curfew in the evening.
A new turning point was taken this weekend with the adoption of total containment. Since March 28, 57 million South Africans are no longer allowed to leave their homes for a period of three weeks. Residents of Zimbabwe and world cities like Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria have also been confined since Monday, March 30, while in Côte d’Ivoire, the government has banned the movement of people between Abidjan and the interior of the country.
Adopted, this measure is not necessarily respected. In total, 31 countries have closed their borders and 12 have suspended their international air links.
The African Union on the move
For its part, the African Union (AU) is trying to provide a global response to the pandemic through its agency, the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CACM). Directed by the Cameroonian microbiologist John Nkengagsong, the CACM has been mobilized since January 28.
In coordination with WHO, it intends to strengthen cooperation between African countries by creating regional networks, along the lines of what has been done to combat Ebola. The CACM also activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a rapid response team engaged in West Africa in 2014 and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2017.
However, this national and pan-African mobilization faces many obstacles to contain the epidemic. First, the barrier measures. ” Washing your hands regularly in a continent where access to water is difficult for the majority of the population is not going to be easy, ” said Augustin Augier of the NGO Alima.
Social distancing, as the Cameroonian novelist Hemley Boum points out on her Facebook page, is a real problem: “ In cities, most people live in a common courtyard, share the same showers, the same toilets. Most people make a living from day to day. Hence the expression “ration”, the father leaves the money for the daily ration. And he goes out to win the one for the next day. You don’t realize how privileged a fridge, with 2-3 days of food stock is . “
On March 29, the President of Benin, Patrice Talon, declared that his country does not have the “means of rich countries” to confine its population. More serious, the health infrastructures available to the continent are very insufficient to accommodate the 15% of Covid-19 patients who will require hospitalization. West Africa has 0.3 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants where France has 6.6.
Fear of disaster
For all these reasons, Denis Mukwege, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, says he dreads a terrible catastrophe for Africa. The secretary general of the UN, Antonio Guterres evoked, on March 27, the hypothesis of “millions of deaths “. WHO or France are calling for urgent and international mobilization for the continent.
An appeal that is beginning to be heard by Africa’s partners. While at the beginning of the year, only two African countries had laboratories capable of diagnosing Covid-19, now there are more than 40 of them.
Individuals and businesses are also mobilizing to support the continent. The pan-African infrastructure company Arise has started delivering millions of masks and protective clothing, non-contact thermometers, thermal imaging cameras and disinfectant gel.
Finally, the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma – founder and president of the online business site Alibaba – has donated 1.5 million laboratory diagnostic kits and 100 tonnes of infection prevention products to the African Union.
The most affected countries
• South Africa is the country most affected by the contagion with 1,326 cases detected and three deaths.
• The three other countries with the most cases are Egypt (579), Algeria (454) and Morocco (534).
• The African countries with the highest number of cases are also those which have the most developed health systems, and therefore the means of detecting the sick.
• The figures should be taken with caution as they most often come from authoritarian countries not very inclined to transparency on this subject.
• Thus, the correspondent for the British daily The Guardian in Egypt, Ruth Michaelson had to leave the country in a hurry on March 20 after citing a Canadian scientific study estimating probably 19,000 new cases of coronavirus in Egypt.