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Africa is not fully prepared for coronavirus crisis

By People Daily
Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
Travellers are screened for Coronavirus at an Indian airport. Photo/COURTESY

By Amanda McClelland        

Globalisation has ensured viruses know no borders, with diseases moving across the world in less than 36 hours. Since December, the novel coronavirus has spread from China, where it was first discovered, to dozens of countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania. In Africa, Egypt became the first African country to register a confirmed case on February 14. 

Needless to say, Africa is the least prepared for epidemics globally. And as Africa and China are increasingly entwined — both socially and economically — it is only a matter of time before more countries register cases. Air traffic between China and Africa has increased 630 per cent over the last decade, with airline fleets now able to transport 850,000 travellers between the two each year. In 2018, there were over 81,000 African students studying in China; currently, there are an estimated 4,600 African students in Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, roughly a million private Chinese citizens have arrived in Africa since 2001. Social tensions around economic inequality have continued to build between Chinese migrants and their African host communities, leading to social isolation of the migrant population.

With exported coronavirus cases from China driving the expansion of the outbreak globally, there is significant risk that fear and stigma will escalate tensions, limit control measures, and drive the spread of outbreaks in many African cities.

The World Bank estimates that 90 per cent of the economic damage from epidemics comes from people’s fear of associating with others. Public health decision-makers in Africa will need to consider the economic and social implications of their preparedness and response efforts now to avoid a health emergency.

To be prepared for any outbreak, including the novel coronavirus, countries must have robust systems to prevent, find, and stop diseases. These critical capacities include having effective systems that are able to detect, rapidly investigate, and verify new cases. They must have adequate supply chains of essential medicines and infection prevention and control equipment; trained health workers who can respond safely and are able to isolate and care for the sick; and the ability to communicate about the disease and combat misinformation quickly among all parts of the community.

After the West African Ebola epidemic from 2014, African countries enthusiastically volunteered for external assessments of their preparedness capacities using the World Health Organisation’s Joint External Evaluation tool. According to PreventEpidemics.org, Africa is the least prepared region in the world, with an average ReadyScore of 39 out of 100, compared with the global average of 54.

Despite limited preparedness in most African countries, they are regularly tested with highly infectious disease outbreaks that occur with frightening regularity. Currently, there are 56 declared outbreaks in the African region. Congo has seen over 3,300 cases and 2,200 deaths since August 2018 from the Ebola virus disease outbreak and an unprecedented measles outbreak of over 300,000 cases and 6,000 deaths since the start of 2019. This year, Uganda declared a yellow fever outbreak, and Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria have had more than 400 suspected cases of Lassa fever, with the number still climbing.

After conducting evaluation with support from partners, some countries have increased their preparedness, but challenges to overstretched and under-resourced health systems have been almost relentless. Public health experts must face the task of maintaining existing response efforts to high consequence outbreaks while also building preparedness for the novel coronavirus.

Unfortunately — or fortunately — there is little to no experience with coronaviruses such as SARS in the WHO African region. 

Recent preparedness efforts to regional health threats such as Ebola virus disease will provide a sound platform for adaption to coronavirus preparedness. The intensified global attention on the novel coronavirus reinforces how preparedness can save lives and livelihoods. 

The article first appeared on devex.com

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