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Coronavirus: Is Africa next?
Published in Ahram Online on 24 - 03 - 2020

Since the coronavirus outbreak took a serious turn at the onset of the year, the world has been fearing the spread of the disease in Africa, largely due to its humble capacities and deteriorating healthcare and development plans.
Africa has been watching with great concern as the virus hit China, which in the past two decades has constructed many infrastructure projects on the continent. As the virus turned to eat up Europe, Africa grew more worried as it contemplated the extent of its relations with both China and Europe.
According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) representative in Africa south of the Sahara, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the majority of the infected cases in Africa were of people who had arrived from Europe.
Moeti said the virus is spreading at a lower rate in Africa than in China and Europe. Her statement didn't quell African fears, however. “Africa south of the Sahara may see more coronavirus infections in the coming two months when the temperatures relatively cool,” Moeti warned, urging African countries to adopt long-term measures to prevent an outbreak of the disease.
However, African doctors believe the continent has registered low infection rates simply because of the lack of tools to detect the virus. Until February, Sub-Saharan Africa, save for South Africa and Senegal, didn't have the equipment to detect the coronavirus.
Later on, the WHO helped 43 countries establish and upgrade labs to discover coronavirus cases. At present, Africa centres for disease control and prevention affiliated with the African Union reported the continent has registered 1,200 coronavirus cases, the highest toll of which was recorded in South Africa, with 240 positive cases and no deaths until 22 March.
According to the WHO's report No 62 of the same date, no African country recorded more than 100 cases except Egypt and South Africa. Covid-19 fatalities in Algeria reached 15, in Egypt 19 and three in each of Burkina Faso and Morocco, and one in each of Gabon, Congo, Sudan and Tunisia.
The death of Congolese music legend Aurlus Mabélé in Paris after being infected with the disease was a shock that rippled across francophone Africa, raising fears and driving countries to adopt strict measures.
In Nigeria, doctors brought to a halt their work stoppage “for humanitarian reasons” to resume their jobs and fight coronavirus. The provincial governors of Nigeria — Africa's most populous country of 200 million people — closed schools in Lagos, home to 20 million Nigerians, after the detection of eight cases. The country also stopped mass travel between states via the railway.
In Uganda, where one case was detected, authorities suspended flights Sunday and banned gatherings and political and cultural activities.
Neighbouring Rwanda announced the extension of its lockdown for a third week after the number of confirmed cases reached 17.
Before the number of infected people had reached 100, South Africa suspended classes and banned the arrival of tourists from high-risk countries. The country also established a number of medical centres to detect the virus in Johannesburg and large cities.
Despite these measures, Africa faces a serious challenge. According to several reports, it is near impossible to maintain social distancing in some of Africa's regions. Moreover, weak infrastructure makes it impossible to provide clean water in many African cities.
The BBC's short documentary “Here You Can Be Easily Infected” tackles the slum areas around Kenya's capital, Nairobi. In the film, residents complain about the lack of running water and soap to buy, in addition to the tight spaces within which Kenyan families live, which makes it impossible to isolate infected cases.
Although healthcare services improved in tens of African countries after the spread of Ebola in 2014, medical care remains mediocre, especially when it comes to the number of hospital beds, and the availability of masks, disinfectants, soap and garments, according to a report by the Mass Sciences Institute of Pretoria University.
Medical staff, including healthcare workers and nurses, need to be trained on how to protect themselves against infections, especially as the world is witnessing healthcare providers, doctors and nurses dying as they embark on treating coronavirus patients.
More than 30 African countries are classified as least developed in the indices of humanitarian development issued by the UN Development Programme in mid-March. “The challenges are enormous… Coronavirus completes the triangle of pandemics in Africa after AIDS and Ebola,” said Sudanese doctor Ahmed Okasha, a professor of endemic diseases.
The coronavirus epidemic has exposed many points of weaknesses worldwide. The African continent is in urgent need of infrastructure projects. It is not fathomable that tens of millions of people have to live without water, waste management systems, being unable to buy soap, and cram with their families in a single room.
Perhaps the coronavirus outbreak will shine fresh light on the urgent need to fight corruption that is exhausting available resources, in addition to the need to find political solutions to ward off civil wars and coups, and to be able to embark on development plans.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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