Africa Faces "Existential Threat" As Virus Cases Spread.

Africa Faces "Existential Threat" As Virus Cases Spread.

JOHANNESBURG – By the end of April, some African countries will have more than 10,000 cases of coronavirus, health officials estimated Thursday, as the continent least prepared for the treatment of severe infections has a "huge void" in the number of ventilators and other vital products. Although cases across Africa are now over 6,000 at what has been called the height of the epidemic, the continent is "very, very close" to where Europe was after a 40-day stretch, reporters told Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus is "an existential threat to our world," he said. All but four of the 54 countries in Africa have cases after Malawi announced the first one on Thursday, and local transmission has begun in several areas. Nkengasong said the authorities are "aggressively" looking into equipment such as ventilators that most African countries urgently need, and exploring local manufacturing and repurposing.

He said that, "We’ve seen a lot of goodwill expressed to supporting Africa from bilateral and multilateral partners," but "we still have to see that translate into concrete action."

Regional director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti told reporters that the World Health Organization doesn't know how many ventilators are available across Africa to support those in respiratory distress. “We are trying to find out this information from country-based colleagues. ... What we can say without a doubt is there is an enormous gap.”

A small number of infected people may require ventilators, and about 15 percent will need intensive care, said WHO official Dr. Zabulon Yoti. 

Some countries don't have enough ventilators. There are only three Central African republics.

Health officials called for global unity at a time when some of the world's richest countries, including face masks, are searching for basic medical needs.

Also if equipment is obtained, bringing them to countries is a growing challenge with the widespread travel restrictions on Africa, while countries have made exceptions for humanitarian cargo or emergency flights. 

Clearly gaging the number of cases of coronavirus in South Africa is a problem, particularly in Africa, the continent's most industrialized region, where authorities have recognized a test backlog.

Nkengasong said, “Countries like Cameroon just reached out yesterday, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, asking, ‘Look, we need tents because we’re running out of hospital beds already.”

As more African countries implement lockdowns, both the WHO and the Africa CDC have expressed concern for the millions of low-income people who need to go out every day to earn their living. That's a "massive obstacle," Mo said, adding hundreds of thousands of kids are still out of school now. 

It is too early to say how the lockout has impacted the number of cases in countries like South Africa, she added

Many countries are suffering from the severe scarcity of test kits or swabs, while 43 countries in the WHO sub-Saharan Africa region now have the capacity to study, up from two in early February.

The lockdowns trigger uneasiness. Five hundred homeless people were herded into a stadium in Pretoria, South Africa's capital, where tents were erected for shelter, and others were supplied with methadone. There have been concerns about lack of sanitizer or soap.

Nkengasong said, “Don’t lock down the whole country,” and “Lock down cities or communities where there’s extensive community transmission so .. social harm is minimized. But if infection is spreading across the entire country, you have no choice.”

Public health officials in Africa are rushing to understand if factors such as the youthful population of Africa — around 70 percent of people on the continent are under the age of 30—will be a help in combating the virus, and how the widespread problems of malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria that affect the capacity of people to fight off infection.

Dr. Meredith McMorrow, United States Medical Officer The influenza division of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, admitted to reporters that the United States is "suffering right now" and this restricts the capacity of the United States to respond with overseas assistance. Yet she said the United States is supporting African nations acquire hardware abroad "as fast as possible."

“Our greatest fear” is that programs tackling those perennial issues will be sapped by the current crisis, Nkengasong said. “The time to advocate for those programs is not when COVID is over. The time is now.”

Image: A municipal worker sprays disinfectant at a Quran school this Wednesday, April 1, 2020, photo, to help curb the spread of the latest coronavirus in Dakar, Senegal.