COVID-19 in Africa: key insights from media briefing with WHO

A 3D computer-generated model of the coronavirus
A computer model of the coronavirus
Image: Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
  • Cases of COVID-19 are increasing across Africa and could escalate with the onset of winter.
  • Africa poses specific challenges because some people live in close quarters, with no running water.
  • The continent has experience dealing with disease outbreaks.

Speakers:

  • Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa
  • Dr Lucile Imboua-Niava, WHO Representative for Senegal
  • Dr Owen Kaluwa, WHO Representative for South Africa

Africa is preparing for a potential escalation in cases of coronavirus, as local transmission increases and winter approaches.

As of 19 March, 33 African countries had reported more than 600 cases and 17 deaths due to COVID-19. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization Regional Director for Africa, said the reasons the virus has not spread as quickly in Africa as it has in the Northern hemisphere were not yet clear.

Speaking at the WHO Africa Media Leader briefing on COVID-19 – supported by the World Economic Forum, she noted there have also been relatively few cases in South America. “We are trying to understand if this could be related to temperature. Certainly we know that we have a distinct flu season in the southern part of the continent.” If that is the case, she said they would expect an increase in transmission of the virus when winter sets in.

Dr Lucile Imboua-Niava, WHO Representative for Senegal, said the way of life in many parts of Africa could drive rapid transmission of the disease, with people living in close quarters.

The WHO is adapting the measures it recommends to slow the spread of the disease, for the African continent. Dr Moeti said: “Sometimes families live in houses where quite a few people have to sleep in the same space, that do not have running water, so the possibility of hand washing frequently and with soap is a challenge.”

She said the WHO was working with partners to make hand sanitizers available to health facilities and families. “We need to think about what it means to do social distancing where people live in crowded conditions. We might have to think differently about the use of masks.”

The WHO is recommending focused testing of all people with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19. Dr Moeti said: “This would enable countries to know as early as possible where infected people are, and initiate social distancing, self-isolation and hygiene measures that are so very important to preventing onward transmission.”

She acknowledged, however, there are not enough testing kits in Africa, or anywhere in the world, for this level of testing. The WHO continues to focus on this area and Dr Moeti said it required more “intensive work, international collaboration, public private partnership”.

World Health Organization Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan

There is concern about the lack of sufficient intensive care units across the continent. Dr Moeti said even South Africa, which has one of the most developed healthcare systems, will struggle to deal with the large numbers of critically ill patients, “if the situation explodes”.

Africa has areas with large populations of people displaced by war and humanitarian crises. Michel Yao, Head of the WHO Country Office, said that is why it was necessary for the WHO to work with NGO partners to improve access to water and sanitation, as it has in the past for cholera outbreaks.

Africa’s younger population does count in its favour, as the disease is less serious for younger people. However, Dr Moeti said other factors will make the population vulnerable to the disease, such as HIV and malnutrition.

Africa, as a continent, has extensive experience in dealing with outbreaks of disease. Dr Moeti said that was an asset and some of the work the WHO is doing to tackle coronavirus is based on community platforms, learnings and mechanisms that were set up to respond to the Ebola outbreak.