The war on covid-19: lessons for Africa

Thursday March 26 2020


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“Africa has been alerted to prepare for the worst – we are seeing developed nations struggled with the virus which has led  their healthy systems cripple, I am so afraid of what will happen to Africa.”

In November 2019, a 55-year-old individual from Hubei province in China may have been the first person to have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus spreading across the globe. As of the end of December 2019, Chinese authorities reported the case as a pneumonia like disease that had infected over 200 people by then.

In under 4 months, as of 24th March 2020, the virus had infected more than 400,000 people worldwide with over 18,000 deaths. Over 1,400 of those cases have been recorded in about 34 African countries.

his is seemingly a very low number compared to the cases in Europe, Asia and America, but I am tempted to ask; Has Africa learnt from the response efforts of other countries or from previous epidemics to tackle the spread of COVID-19?

Since the outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been supporting African governments with early detection by providing thousands of COVID-19 testing kits, training dozens of health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities.

This was aimed to enable Africa have a firm foundation towards identifying, managing the disease and limiting widespread transmission. The first confirmed case on the African continent was in Egypt on 14th February 2020.



By then, some Africans had wrong misconceptions and wild myths about the virus, that they neglected the measures against any contraction. However, on a positive note, by mid-March, some African governments including Rwanda rolled out robust measures to halt the spread and to contain the pandemic.

The unprecedented nature of the measures, termed by some as “draconian quarantine measures,” have seen churches and schools closed, borders closed, travels restricted, citizens forced to endure life under lock down, working from home and temporarily close non-essential activities and businesses.

There have been persistent allegations that the initial outbreak was mishandled. However, some developed economies detected the virus and developed top-down efforts as well as put in place the necessary measures early.

So, if developed nations struggled with the virus that it left their healthy systems crippled, I am so afraid of what will happen to Africa.

There are many fears that the spread of the virus in Africa will be like wild fires. This is hinged on challenges peculiar to Africa; limited access to clean water, poor health systems, densely populated cities, poor transportation, and poor quality hygiene as well as the inability to trace and test all those who came in contact with those that test positive.

So, what lessons can the war on Covid-19 teach Africa?

Strengthening health systems not just in emergencies. All African countries ought to invest heavily in outbreak preparation and building health care infrastructure - Ebola and HIV should have left a wake-up call.

Almost from the onset of the health emergency, the World Health Organization warned of the risk that COVID-19 could spread to countries with weaker health systems, including in sub-Saharan Africa, which has been engulfed with poor sanitation facilities, the proliferation of informal economy and urban crowding pose additional challenges in the efforts to combat the highly infectious disease.

Sudden shift

Even some confirmed cases in some African countries have escaped quarantine, claiming that they did not have faith in the health facilities of their countries. This is a blatant fail in the efforts to slowing the spread of the virus in the communities. It is therefore important for Africa to build firm its health systems, learning from previous cases.

Embracing electronic platforms for education. Schools were abruptly shut down, which meant many teachers were yet to finalize their classes for the period.

In a bid to keep the students occupied while at home, many schools and education agencies on the African continent have tried to introduce classes and lessons as well as assessments online.

These tools and new teaching techniques are going to keep the students learning, however, how many teachers or students have access to laptops or desktops, or how many students can even operate the equipment and how realistic is it to suddenly shift large amounts of teaching online?

Although the online learning is only temporary, it’s vital for Africa to embrace e-learning platforms early as the education and IT experts predict online education will one day become the new normal, due to the proliferating technological advancement.

Embracing cashless and online business activities.  Since Covid-19 landed, unforeseen and unwanted, extraordinary measures have been adopted to contain its threat. Because hand-to-hand exchange of physical currency could transmit the coronavirus, cashless measures has been opted.

This might turn out to be the catalyst that finally brings digital payments fully into the mainstream, which is the thing to embrace. Many people are still opting to exchange money because of the mindset they have of holding cash than using digital.

We should not wait for crises to choose the right thing. Additionally, some business have introduced online platforms to continue their trading, an aspect that can be further embraced, which helps reduce time wastage.

Finally if the pandemic persists African governments should have a database of  people at -risk for example the disabled , those who live alone so that they can be able to  deliver supplies and food  to them. Africa has been advised to prepare for the worst.

But in addition to tremendous leadership needed, its pivotal for all citizens to know that basic preventative measures by individuals and communities remain the most powerful tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The author is a public health practitioner, Executive Director at Never Again Rwanda & the Chairperson of the Rwanda Civil Society Platform. Twitter: @JosephRyarasa