By Lisa Vives
Only a few weeks ago, African leaders were breathing a sigh of relief as the new coronavirus skipped the continent to lodge in Italy, Spain and other European countries.
“Whether it’s a matter of faulty detection, climatic factors or simple fluke, the remarkably low rate of coronavirus infection in African countries, with their fragile health systems, continues to puzzle,” said Amadou Alpha Sall, head of the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal.
Then a test turned up one positive and then another, giving signs of a new crisis emerging in at least 30 of Africa’s 54 countries, officials said this week.
The most worrying confirmation of a first case came from Somalia, with one of the continent’s weakest health systems after nearly three decades of conflict. Tanzania, Liberia and Benin also announced their first cases.
Moving with all deliberate speed, African nations began imposing travel restrictions as most confirmed cases came from abroad. Algeria cut off all air and sea contact with Europe, and Botswana barred travelers from 18 high-risk countries. French citizens visiting South Africa have been urged to leave as soon as possible.
“Countries like South Korea and China have managed to control this outbreak,” commented Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, regional director for Africa, World Health Organization. “We are learning… Limiting contact between people when you have local transmission is a good thing to do…”
“The South African government is striking a good balance,” she added. “Gatherings of people increase the chances of infections spreading. But we must have a balance… I think 100 [maximum number of people allowed to gather in South Africa] is a reasonable number…
“Greeting, hugging, kissing – no!” Dr. Moeti said. “Even elbow bumps require you to come close to somebody… Smile and bow instead… it’s a good thing to do.”
“The reality is this,” said South Africa’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, commenting on the 62 documented cases, all from abroad. “Individuals that have been infected thus far are people who can afford going on holiday abroad or they travel for business. Those individuals also have accommodation for self-quarantine.
“However, when this outbreak starts affecting our poor communities where families do not have enough rooms or spaces to quarantine those affected, we will experience a crisis.”
The WHO says it has now shifted from “readiness” to “response” mode on the continent with 147 confirmed cases in 15 countries.