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African countries move from COVID-19 readiness to response as many confirm cases

The global community is racing to slow down and eventually halt the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives and sickened tens of thousands of others. In Africa, the virus has spread to dozens of countries within weeks. Governments and health authorities across the continent are striving to limit widespread infections.

Since the start of the outbreak the World Health Organization (WHO) has been supporting African governments with early detection by providing thousands of COVID-19 testing kits to countries, training dozens of health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities. Forty-seven countries in the WHO African region can now test for COVID-19. At the start of the outbreak only two could do so.

WHO has issued guidance to countries, which is regularly updated to take into account the evolving situation. The guidelines include measures such as quarantine, repatriations of citizens and preparedness at workplaces. The Organization is also working with a network of experts to coordinate regional surveillance efforts, epidemiology, modelling, diagnostics, clinical care and treatment, and other ways to identify, manage the disease and limit widespread transmission.

WHO is 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. Preparedness and response to previous epidemics is providing a firm foundation for many African countries to tackle the spread of COVID-19.

Importantly, basic preventative measures by individuals and communities remain the most powerful tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19. WHO is helping local authorities craft radio messaging and TV spots to inform the public about the risks of COVID-19 and what measures should be taken. The Organization is also helping to counter disinformation and is guiding countries on setting up call centres to ensure the public is informed. 

Source: WHO

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Africa Prepares for “the Worst”

One of the biggest unknowns in the COVID-19 pandemic: What will happen in Africa? Home to 1.2 billion people, Africa has seen the novel coronavirus quickly spread to 37 countries and more than 700 cases. Will African countries be able to effectively detect and isolate new cases, or will the virus spread rapidly through metropolises like Lagos, Kinshasa, and Cairo and overwhelm health systems?

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivered a stark warning to the continent on Thursday: “Africa should wake up, my continent should wake up,” Tedros said, adding it should prepare for “the worst,” according to the BBC.

Travelers, mostly from European countries, have brought the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the continent repeatedly. Just over a week ago, the novel virus had been detected in only 5 countries.

“I think we can characterize the status in Africa now as being in a really rapid evolution of this epidemic. We’ve been adding several countries a day, and also adding quite a significant number of cases a day,” said WHO’s regional director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti. In most countries, cases have been tracked to visitors from outside the country; however, community transmission appears to be happening in at least 4 countries: Algeria, South Africa, Senegal, and Burkina Faso.

2 months ago, the fear was that asymptomatic transmission was already underway and massive numbers of sick people were only weeks from appearing in health care facilities. However, that vision hasn’t yet been realized. 

“That doesn’t make me complacent at all,” Moeti said in a phone interview from her office in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. “It makes me recognize that the window of opportunity that we had is narrowing very quickly. And we really have to work very hard with countries to help them to even further improve, particularly their surveillance systems.” 

At the beginning of the outbreak, just 2 labs in the WHO Africa region (for the most part sub-Saharan Africa) could confirm SARS-CoV-2 infection. Now, labs in 40 countries can. That’s an important step because it helps countries isolate those infected and take other steps like contact tracing. 

Being able to process tests in the lab is one thing; having sufficient numbers of test kits is another. “As is the case everywhere I would say, testing capabilities, meaning test kits, are a challenge,” Moeti says.

Among other concerns for Moeti are how the high prevalence of HIV among young people and malnutrition among under-5 children could alter COVID-19 outcomes. 

Quickly adding to response capabilities in low- and middle-income countries in Africa and elsewhere is the goal of a $40 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies that was announced on Tuesday. 

“Speed is really important. Time is lives in a pandemic like this,” said Tom Frieden, former US CDC director. Frieden is president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, which is partnering WHO and the Bloomberg Philanthropies. “The sooner we can get training, the sooner we can get information systems, the sooner we can get laboratory networks working—the more likely we are to find it faster, stop it sooner, and prevent it wherever possible.”

The initiative will support rapid response teams that will work with country partners on infection prevention and detection, training of frontline health care workers, and the development of lab networks, among other priorities. 

The project will also provide rapid response funding. “A little bit of money fast can make an enormous difference in being able to provide services to communities, more rapidly detect and respond to cases, or protect health care workers,” Frieden said.

A conversation with an African colleague emphasized the urgency for Frieden. “They just tested a couple dozen patients with severe ailments, and most of them had this,” said Frieden, who declined to identify the country. “So, there is the real risk that this will explode.” 

“I know there’s been a theory that Africa might be somehow protected by warm climate. That’s a theory. It’s not something that can be counted on,” Frieden said. 

Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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Africa sees ‘extremely rapid evolution’ of pandemic, UN says

More African countries closed their borders Thursday as the coronavirus’ local spread threatened to turn the continent of 1.3 billion people into an alarming new front for the pandemic.

Africa is seeing an “extremely rapid evolution,” the World Health Organization’s regional chief, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters.

Thirty-six of Africa’s 54 countries now have cases, with the total over 720. Chad and Niger announced their first cases Thursday. The first case in sub-Saharan Africa was announced Feb. 28, less than four weeks ago.

Moeti said she did not believe that large numbers of infected people are going undetected but acknowledged a shortage of testing kits. Forty-three countries have testing capability, up from two when the outbreak began. By Monday, countries will have 60,000 testing kits.

The WHO regional chief also expressed concern about travel restrictions and their impact on the ability to deliver needed resources. The WHO is considering humanitarian corridors, Moeti said. But many African nations were taking their cue from China and other countries by sharply restricting travel.

On Thursday, Senegal closed its airspace. Angola and Cameroon shut air, land and sea borders. Rwanda blocked all commercial flights for a month. The island nation of Mauritius closed its border after announcing its first case. Some people in other countries clamored for their governments to block flights, too.

“To stop this virus once and for all is to stop any flight that will land to (Nairobi’s international airport). Let them stop,” said Uhuru Evans, a bus driver in the capital of Kenya, East Africa’s economic hub.

He offered hand sanitizer to passengers as they boarded.

“Since it was announced that it has reached Kenya, I am refusing to take customers to the airport,” said Peter Muteru, a taxi driver. “It has reached a point where I carry only people I know.”

South Africa, where the number of cases jumped to 150 from 116, said it would install a new fence on both sides of its main border post with economically shattered Zimbabwe to keep infected people from crossing into either country undetected. South Africa has the most cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe has reported none.

“We must protect our citizens and fellow Africans,” Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille said. The new fence will stretch some 12 miles (19 kilometers) on either side.

Some African nations also began cracking down on alcohol sales to help prevent the coronavirus’ spread among crowds of patrons. South Africa said all places that sell alcohol for drinking on site must close from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni declared that “drunkards sit close to one another. They speak with saliva coming out of their mouth. They are a danger to themselves.”

Elsewhere, Mauritania announced a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and closed restaurants and cafes, another trend likely to spread on the continent.

The head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. John Nkengasong, warned that simply being tested shouldn’t end anyone’s concerns. “If you are tested today, it doesn’t mean you aren’t infected tomorrow,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, a day after the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia issued a security alert about reports of attacks on foreigners accused of having the virus, that country’s government appealed for calm.

“COVID-19 is not related to any country or nationality,” the office of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said. “It is a test against all humanity.”

Hours later, the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon said Americans and other foreigners in the major cities of Yaounde and Douala reported “verbal and online harassment, stone throwing and banging on vehicles occupied by expatriates.”

Source: The Associated Press

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