COVID-19 pandemic expands reach in Africa

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Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe addressing a press conference on update of coronavirus at Harambee house

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Africa continues to grow, more countries in the continent are seeing the virus spread to regions beyond the capital cities. Among 47 countries in the World Health Organization (WHO) African region, nearly 60% are reporting COVID-19 cases in multiple locations compared with around 21% two weeks ago. There are clusters of cases and community spread in at least 16 countries.

“Tackling cases in rural areas that often lack the resources of urban centres will pose an immense challenge for already strained health systems in Africa,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “There is a critical shortage of treatment facilities for critical cases of COVID-19 in Africa.” WHO finds that the total number of beds in intensive care units (ICU) available for use during COVID-19 in 43 countries in Africa is fewer than 5000. This is about five beds per one million people in the reported countries compared to 4000 beds per one million people in Europe. ICUs are where COVID-19 patients in critical condition are being treated in most countries. In 41 countries, which reported to WHO, functional ventilators in public health services are fewer than 2000.

A preliminary analysis of COVID-19 deaths finds that more than half (55%) of reported deaths are people over 60 years and yet they account for only 16% of total cases. This may indicate that older Africans may be at higher risk of dying of COVID-19. But containment is still possible. In 31 countries, there are fewer than 100 cumulative COVID-19 cases. If they continue to have early detection and strong and comprehensive interventions around each case, they can avoid a further spread of COVID-19.

As COVID-19 cases move out of urban areas, there is a need to decentralize the response and increase coordination with regional administrations as well as reinforce sub-national health emergency response systems. Provincial and regional governments and administrations need to be able to coordinate, trace contacts, contain cases, and treat patients locally. Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria have expanded national testing to multiple laboratories, allowing for decentralized testing. Tanzania is currently planning further expansion in this regard. Ethiopia has even repurposed its national animal health laboratory to test for COVID-19.

WHO continues to provide technical and logistical support to countries. In the coming days, the Organization will ship to 30 African countries one million extra masks donated by China, as well as enough personal protective equipment for each country to treat 100 COVID-19 patients. This is being organized in collaboration with the World Food Programme.

WHO is working in partnership with other United Nations agencies to respond to COVID-19. The organization held a virtual press conference today with Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Mohammed Abdiker, International Organization for Migration Regional Director for East and Horn of Africa and Elsie Kanza, Head of Africa, World Economic Forum.