Wednesday, 15 April 2020 19:50

How the spread of coronavirus is testing Africa

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Africa has passed the grim milestone of 10,000 reported cases of coronavirus, along with more
    than 500 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC).
    As the daily number of new infections appears to be falling in parts of the world, some fear the
    epicentre of the virus could move to the continent.
    Despite efforts to lock down cities and countries, despite donations of protective equipment,
    testing kits and ventilators from China, one thing is clear: Africa has not yet flattened the curve
    and the room for manoeuvre is getting smaller.
    'Delay in action'
    "What we are seeing is that this opportunity is no longer there or almost not there for some
    countries," says Dr Michel Yao, who runs the emergency response programme for the World
    Health Organization (WHO) in Africa.
    "The worry is also now that [countries] cannot adequately manage this phase, they are moving to
    [in country transmission]. But we are seeing there is some delay in addressing [this]… to
    mobilise more people, train more people, think about capacity."
    It is difficult to compare regions with different cultures, economies, travel links and
    infrastructure, but some comparisons paint an urgent picture.
    In studying the daily increases in the number of those who have tested positive for coronavirus
    around the world, Africa appears to be controlling the spread better than in the US and Europe so
    far.
    But the comparison with Asia, where some countries appeared to reduce the daily increase in the
    number of new cases relatively quickly, does not fare so well.
    Spreading in communities
    Perhaps a better comparison could be with the Middle East. There, cases have steadily risen,
    along with deaths, and the region has now recorded more than 78,000 cases in total, according to
    the WHO.
    Nearly every African country has reported cases, and while most began with patients bringing
    the virus in through international travel, it is now spreading within communities.
    Different variables make predictions difficult, but the worst-case scenarios are still jarring.
    "Cases can easily pick up," Dr Yao says, "even triple, maybe multiply by seven to 10 from what
    we have right now".
    Confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa
    Source: WHO
    In South Africa, the last two weeks of March saw a 20-fold increase in the number of confirmed
    cases. In response to the growing numbers, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a country-wide
    three-week lockdown that began on 27 March.
    He has since extended that to the end of April as the number of daily new cases has dropped -
    though it is too early to say conclusively if the lockdown the reason.
    What is significant is the rise in testing capabilities in South Africa.
    The country has so far conducted around 60,000 tests for Covid-19, the disease caused by the
    virus, and is now testing at a rate of nearly 5,000 a day, according to Health Minister Zweli
    Mkhize.
    But compared to other countries in the grip of the virus, that amount is still woefully inadequate.
    Italy - one the hardest hit countries in the world - has a similar population to South Africa and
    has conducted more than 700,000 tests.
    Testing numbers are even more worrying across the rest of Africa.
    Nigeria and Kenya have each conducted around 5,000 tests. Compare that with 600,000 in South
    Korea, who many see as having waged the strongest campaign against the virus.
    "We are seeing an increase in the number of tests but I think we could do much more," argues Dr
    Abdhallah Ziraba, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the African Population and Health
    Research Center.
    Testing bottlenecks
    African countries have been fighting hard to raise their testing capacity.
    Health ministries have worked to convert private laboratories into Covid-19 testing centres and
    major laboratories like the Pasteur Institute in Dakar have - through the ACDC-organised Covid-
    19 training seminars for laboratories around the region.


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