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COVID-19: lessons for Africa from determined countries

Since the detection and confirmation of the outbreak of novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province – China at the end of 2019, there are scores of worthwhile lessons that Africa can from countries that have effectively responded to the killer and highly contagious flu-like virus. Each passing day, the novel strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) has continued to attack more people like fire eating up straw with more countries reporting disheartening news of new outbreaks. The swirl wind of COVID-19 is so contagious that it spreads between people in a similar way to influenza and has dictated unrelenting dedication among medical scientists to front a possible cure or vaccine, soonest.

In under a span of nearly two and half months, it is feared that at least 101,000 people mainly from China have been infected and their cases confirmed.  These statistics translate to about 1,667 new infections per day since COVID-19 breakout in Wuhan, China towards the close of last year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus, whose main medium of transmission is via respiratory droplets produced during coughing or sneezing, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

Whereas there is hope that the world may not be off the edge of finding a fastidious catholicon for the disease with many people infected already treated and recovered, increasing numbers of deaths in China and beyond alongside marginal cases of re-infections portend fear for struggling economies in Africa who have shallow fiscus that is punctuated with fragile health systems and incessant links with China to mitigate against the virus, especially if it were to attack the continent as vigorously and sporadic as it has done in mainland China and Italy, South Korea and Iran.

The virus’ delay to spread in Africa has puzzled scientists but on a global scale, conferences, football matches and other events have either been postponed or called off.

Africa’s readiness to tackle disease outbreaks in the past has either been slow and although fast, often undercut by resource inadequacies, misinformation among other factors that resulted into a cobra effect. To date, at least 3,200 people have succumbed to the deadly COVID-19 virus. 

The WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned countries against committing a “fatal mistake” that they are immune from the virus at a time when Africa announced its first case in Nigeria about a fortnight ago. Most current statistics indicate that the virus has been confirmed in Morocco, Cameroon and Egypt, South Africa, Algeria and Senegal, Tunisia and recently, Togo. Apparently, the reported cases are as a result of individuals who travelled from countries where the cases have already been reported, igniting debate on infected persons’ sensitivity to public interest. It has also been reported that some unscrupulous travellers are taking antibiotics, fever relievers to beat checks at airports and other entry points.  It should be understood that misinformation will most likely portend more harm than harm COVID-19 can portend.  

The WHO has sent teams of experts to areas and countries within the African jurisdiction alongside dispatch of essential personal protective equipment to solidify readiness of African countries and territories to successfully fight the disease and protect the health its people. Whereas the United Nations organ on health may lack authority to regulate citizens and visitors’ mobility into and outside a country, African governments should not turn a blind eye to the gentle nudge by the body in doing the right thing.

There is no shred of doubt that as more cases continue to be reported, individuals, authorities and territories will likely apportion blame and point an accusing finger to each other. But a time like this, no energy should be wasted in anything else but in doing what is logically and principally right.  This a moment African governments should seize to create public health awareness so that ordinary citizens can know what they can do within their means to keep safe.

On its official website, the WHO provides a raft of safety measures an online course against contracting the virus as a free package but few people have knowledge on the availability of this useful information and as much as they do, few people can navigate the internet due to poor penetration, connectivity charges or illiteracy.

A clarion call to wash hands regularly and meticulously with alcohol-based hand sanitizers, soap or water as a preventive mechanism to acquiring the COVID-19 should be advocated for by all. Reliable statistics indicate that access to water supply and sanitation is at 60 percent and a paltry 31 percent, respectively. These statistics reveal a disparity in unmet water access and sanitation needs across the continent. This dent, compounded with resource inadequacies, paint a grim picture of Africa’s readiness to effectively mitigate against the disease.  

African governments should provide an up to date and accurate data on this development if the killer virus is to be tamed. Her governments should not shy from painting the picture as it is. Leaders should desist from providing a classical cobra effect by intimidating connoisseurs of health, an approach that apparently proved counterproductive in the formative stages of the virus in China. No one chooses when to contract the virus; victimization of victims or perceived victims on any grounds should be discouraged. African governments must provide leadership, support and hope rather than vents of discontentment to keep the virus at bay. Inaction, unpreparedness and mass panic will do more damage that the damage COVID-19 can possibly do.

Taiwan, which is contiguous to China build up its mitigation effort, instituted an elaborate command structure and embraced a transparent communication mechanism, a raft of measures that have proven rewarding in controlling the spread of cases. Apparently, Taiwan has 44 quarantined cases. Industrial giant Singapore was among the first countries to report on COVID-19 cases but tough laws for tracing cases, which dictate punitive measures against false information coupled with citizens’ sense of civic duty and responsibility to front other people’s welfare over and above their own has worked in controlling the spread. By leveraging on technology, Singapore has encouraged her citizens to communicate about their location through an online system and they are taking orders to self-quarantine. Because of its advanced health system and technology, tracking links between infected persons is possible something that has caught the attention of the World Economic Forum. Above, all Singapore has learnt from past experiences. For instance, when the country experienced SARS outbreak in 2003, 33 people died.

In Africa, respect for the rule of law remains suspect. People continue congregating in churches, mosques and in political rallies as though it is business as usual. Intra-Africa borders are porous in a continent that was has pockets of militia causing fear. Climate change manifestation has made water a scarce resource not only for drinking and domestic use but for washing hands as the WHO has guided.  In weeks ahead, it is probable that self-proclaimed healers will use the Bible and will swindle many in the name of healing COVID-19. Other than countries that have learnt from Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, the level of sensitization among other African countries remain low. Going forward therefore, phones should ring from Algiers to Maputo, Kampala to Dakar and everywhere across the continent; governments should share strategic information, learn and support each other to protect her people.

Ed.’s Note: Obed Nyangena is an Economist. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Obed Nyangena