How the spread of coronavirus is testing Africa

How the spread of coronavirus is testing Africa

Africa has passed the grim milestone of 10,000 reported cases of coronavirus, along with more than 500 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC).

As the daily number of new infections appears to be falling in parts of the world, some fear the epicentre of the virus could move to the continent.

Despite efforts to lock down cities and countries, despite donations of protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators from China, one thing is clear: Africa has not yet flattened the curve and the room for manoeuvre is getting smaller.

‘Delay in action’

“What we are seeing is that this opportunity is no longer there or almost not there for some countries,” says Dr Michel Yao, who runs the emergency response programme for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Africa.

“The worry is also now that [countries] cannot adequately manage this phase, they are moving to [in country transmission]. But we are seeing there is some delay in addressing [this]… to mobilise more people, train more people, think about capacity.”

South African Police Service (SAPS) walk past shoppers queuing outside a food store during their operation in Sunnyside, Pretoria on April 7, 2020
The lockdown in South Africa means that the number of shoppers in supermarkets are restricted

It is difficult to compare regions with different cultures, economies, travel links and infrastructure, but some comparisons paint an urgent picture.

In studying the daily increases in the number of those who have tested positive for coronavirus around the world, Africa appears to be controlling the spread better than in the US and Europe so far.

But the comparison with Asia, where some countries appeared to reduce the daily increase in the number of new cases relatively quickly, does not fare so well.

Spreading in communities

Perhaps a better comparison could be with the Middle East. There, cases have steadily risen, along with deaths, and the region has now recorded more than 78,000 cases in total, according to the WHO.

Nearly every African country has reported cases, and while most began with patients bringing the virus in through international travel, it is now spreading within communities.

Different variables make predictions difficult, but the worst-case scenarios are still jarring. “Cases can easily pick up,” Dr Yao says, “even triple, maybe multiply by seven to 10 from what we have right now”.

In South Africa, the last two weeks of March saw a 20-fold increase in the number of confirmed cases. In response to the growing numbers, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a country-wide three-week lockdown that began on 27 March.

He has since extended that to the end of April as the number of daily new cases has dropped – though it is too early to say conclusively if the lockdown the reason.

What is significant is the rise in testing capabilities in South Africa.

Medical staff prepare to test another person for Covid-19 Coronavirus at a reutine testing station on day 13 of the 21 day national lockdown following President Cyril Ramaphosa declaration of a National Disaster in Johannesburg, South Africa
South Africa has mobile testing units to try and test as many people as possible

The country has so far conducted around 60,000 tests for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and is now testing at a rate of nearly 5,000 a day, according to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize.

But compared to other countries in the grip of the virus, that amount is still woefully inadequate. Italy – one the hardest hit countries in the world – has a similar population to South Africa and has conducted more than 700,000 tests.

Testing numbers are even more worrying across the rest of Africa.

Doctors prepare to administer the mandatory COVID-19 coronavirus test for detainees of a Government designated quarantine facility in Nairobi on March 29, 2020
Kenya, health workers have been testing people who have been put in quarantine

Nigeria and Kenya have each conducted around 5,000 tests. Compare that with 600,000 in South Korea, who many see as having waged the strongest campaign against the virus.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of tests but I think we could do much more,” argues Dr Abdhallah Ziraba, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Center.

Testing bottlenecks

African countries have been fighting hard to raise their testing capacity.

Health ministries have worked to convert private laboratories into Covid-19 testing centres and major laboratories like the Pasteur Institute in Dakar have – through the ACDC-organised Covid-19 training seminars for laboratories around the region.

Still it has not been enough.

Bottlenecks in the supplies of reagents necessary for testing have limited capacity.

Source: BBC

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