Covid-19: how are African countries coping?

The living conditions in Africa vary greatly; from cramped slums to the large houses where the wealthy live to the villages elsewhere. This means that the spread of Covid-19 in Africa varies greatly as well.  

Early data has shown that currently there are fewer cases of Covid-19 than were expected, but the number of cases is beginning to rise. There have already been a number of measures put in place that aim to combat the transmission of the disease. The response to the disease has been coordinated across all of Africa to ensure an early response, which is essential as many countries do not have the capability to roll out widespread testing as we have in the UK. 

As a result of this, African countries have been seen to progress into the delay phase of the outbreak protection measures at a faster pace than other, perhaps more developed, countries. The contain phase is less viable when countries are not able to test patients and contain them separately from the rest of the population. 

Africa has more experience dealing with large disease outbreaks. In the past decade, Africa has already coordinated responses to the Ebola outbreak, the Zika virus outbreak and previous coronaviruses SARS and MERS. The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) was set up in response to the Ebola outbreak. It has been responsible for disseminating key health information throughout Africa during the Covid-19 situation and coordinating a response to the outbreak, along with other societies such as the African Society of Laboratory Medicine. Social distancing is being encouraged, and several countries across Africa including in South Africa and Nigeria are already in lockdown. 

Despite the response to the pandemic so far appearing to be successful, it is as yet unknown if the number of cases will start to rise as they have in the rest of the world. The healthcare systems in Africa may struggle to access the resources needed for this pandemic. The intensive care situations are very different to those we typically see in more developed countries and regardless of this fact, there are simply fewer beds available in intensive care units. Access to oxygen is already difficult and ventilators are already few and far between, without the pressure of a highly infectious respiratory disease such as Covid-19. 

It is not just the direct impacts of Covid-19, though, on the healthcare system, but also the wider impacts, including the death rates from other diseases increasing as there is a greater burden on the hospitals. As was seen in the Ebola outbreak, maternal health outcomes suffered and instances of diseases such as malaria increased as resources and doctors themselves became stretched further. The wider impact of this disease will be felt particularly strongly in the ongoing day-to-day health issues of many in Africa. 

It is also proving difficult to enforce social distancing as much of the population relies on working in jobs amongst many other people to earn money, and similarly going shopping where there are a number of other people at any one time for their survival. People depend on work for a salary and then buy food on a day by day basis as there are little facilities for refrigeration of produce if they were to bulk buy in advance. Social distancing is likely to cause a number of issues for those in Africa, not the least being economic issues with not being able to work, but a complete lockdown would mean that many may go hungry as they will not be able to earn money to buy food. 

Professor Trudie Lang, a Professor of Global Health Research and the Head of Global Health Network at the University of Oxford, has been one of the researchers helping to organise the research priorities into Covid-19 in Africa, such as disease prevention and drug and vaccine development with the research groups based in Africa. Professor Lang says that the research institutions are more than capable of running the research projects, but international support and funding are still needed to ensure these programmes can run successfully. 

Africa’s response so far to the Covid-19 outbreak is tantamount to the ability of the healthcare professionals and organisations such as Africa CDC to work together to coordinate a response to the health crisis caused by this pandemic, which transcends national borders.

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Olivia Johnson

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October 2021
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