While Covid-19 cases continue to rise many African countries are beginning to ease restrictions. Report by David Thomas.
Africa has registered more than 500,000 cases of coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization, doubling the continent’s caseload in more than 22 countries over the past month and putting fragile health systems at risk of being overwhelmed.
The worrying figures offer significant cause for concern for policymakers who have been gradually rolling back strict lockdowns in an attempt to kickstart stricken economies.
In less than five months, the virus has claimed 11,959 lives in Africa, overtaking the 11,308 lives lost in the world’s worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2014 and 2016.
Nearly two-thirds of countries are experiencing community transmission. The continent only passed 200,000 cases on 10 June, having taken almost 100 days to reach 100,000 cases from mid-February following the imposition of strict lockdowns.
But as the economic cost of restrictions have become clear – sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product is expected to shrink by 3.2% this year according to the IMF – pressure has grown for governments to relax lockdowns.
“With more than a third of countries in Africa doubling their cases over the past month, the threat of Covid-19 overwhelming fragile health systems on the continent is escalating,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO director for Africa.
The steady rise in cases in some countries indicates a ‘protracted pandemic’, according to the WHO, but the trend is not uniform across the continent.
Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa account for about 71% of Covid-19 cases, with South Africa alone accounting for 43% of the total.
Yet Eritrea, Gambia, Mali, Seychelles and Togo are witnessing long doubling times and low growth rates, and ten countries have experienced a downward trend over the past month.
Although Egypt accounts for 15% of cumulative cases, it has seen a decline in the past week, according to the WHO.
Due to Africa’s relatively young population, 88% of infections are among people aged 60 and below
“So far the continent has avoided disaster and if countries continue to strengthen key public health measures such as testing, tracing contacts and isolating cases, we can slow down the spread of the virus to a manageable level,” says Moeti.
The numbers will spark renewed debate over the pace of reopening Africa’s troubled economies. This week, Kenya announced plans to resume international air travel from 1 August and lifted the cessation of movement in and out of the key cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Mandera, although a curfew remains in place for a further 30 days.
Yet just as the restrictions were eased, the country’s chief administrative secretary for health, Dr. Rashid Aman, warned that a rise in cases to over 7,800 risks and an attitude of complacency risked overwhelming the country.
“In recent weeks, the country has witnessed Covid-19 cases steadily rising implying that many more people will require critical care, and our healthcare facilities risk being overwhelmed,” he said.
“We have observed that many of our people are going about their everyday activities as if we are in normal times. There have been cases of illegal gatherings, such as house parties in various counties, with people paying no regard to the need for social distance or wearing of face masks,” he adds.
Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said that communities must remain vigilant in the key phase of lockdown easing.
“Communities across the continent have a crucial role to play in controlling the pandemic, especially as countries begin easing lockdowns and opening up their borders,” he says.
“As governments continue to implement public health measures, individuals must remain as cautious and vigilant as ever to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. Hand washing, mask use, physical distancing and other preventative measures are key to controlling transmission, saving lives, and ensuring that already overwhelmed health systems are not stretched to breaking point.”