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Coronavirus: Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda see first East African cases

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Sunday, 15 March 2020 15:41

A priest gives the holy communion on the hands of catholic faithfuls during a Sunday mass at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi
A priest gives communion to the catholic faithful during Sunday mass in Nairobi. Rwanda has closed churches to avoid spread of coronavirus. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi - RC2DKF940SCN

Medical teams in Kigali, Addis Ababa and Nairobi are on high alert as virus makes landfall in East Africa.

Both Kenya and Ethiopia confirmed their first cases of COVID-19 on Friday the 13th of March, just a day after their presidents held talks in Nairobi.

Ethiopian Health Minister Lia Tadesse said the country’s first case is “a 48 year old Japanese citizen who came to Ethiopia on March 4th from Burkina Faso and is currently isolated at our facility undergoing medical follow up.”

In Nairobi, newly appointed Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe said the country’s first case was a Kenyan citizen who had travelled from the US via London on March 5th.

The unnamed citizen had travelled to several places in the country, and the Kenyan government said it was doing contact tracing.

Nairobi also said it had an emergency response team and would be recruiting additional medical personnel on emergency contracts.

The following day, Rwanda, too said it had detected a case.

  • The patient comes from India, and arrived in Rwanda on March 8.
  • The Rwandan ministry of health announced the closure of schools and churches: “Places of worship are closed from Sunday March 15, 2020, with prayers to be conducted from home”

The arrival of COVID-19 to the East African countries was a matter of when, not if, especially because they both either delayed or refused to stop flights to countries that have been badly affected.

After emerging in Wuhan, China, just three months ago, the viral pandemic has spread to at least 123 countries so far.

  • Many countries have taken measures to reduce exposure, such as quarantining travellers or banning travel altogether.
  • In neighbouring Uganda, which has previous experience handling the Ebola epidemic, the government announced that “Any traveller from these countries [Classified as Category 1], including Ugandan nationals will be subjected to self-quarantine or institutional (health facility) quarantine at their own cost”
  • Reports on Friday indicated the government had deported about a dozen travellers from an unnamed European country who refused to self-quarantine.

In late February, Kenyan carrier Kenya Airways suspended an employee who had recorded a video of plane landing at the country’s main airport from China.

The China Southern Airlines Flight had touched down with 239 passengers, and both the Kenyan government and Embassy of China in Nairobi had said that they would be required to self-quarantine.

  • Kenya Airways suspended flights to Rome-Geneva on Thursday, as Italy has become the epicenter of the pandemic after successful, ongoing interventions in China.
  • Ethiopia Airways is also still flying to pandemic-hit countries, but it includes a concise list of countries from where travellers are not allowed to enter the Eastern African country.

While COVID-19 has a fairly low mortality rate, its effect on global routes and supply chains is likely to be felt for a long time.

In Nairobi, for example, the announcement of the country’s patient zero immediately led to panic buying. Shoppers emptied shelves of tissue paper, hand sanitizers, food, and other supplies.

Although the country’s competition authority warned against price hikes and hoarding, it is likely that if there are other victims, the panic will result in inflation.

It will also worsen the looming food shortages in Kenya and Ethiopia due to the desert locust invasion, which FAO warned on March 10th is just about to worsen as new swarms form.

East Africa has largely avoided the carnage the pandemic has caused in other regions and continents, but Africa’s overall low COVID-19 cases is worrying researchers.

While it could be because of low testing, there are also many other possibilities, including the region’s youthful population.

According to the WHO, the pandemic is severe/fatal among the elderly and those with low immunity. Both Europe and China, which are the epicenters of the pandemic, have a graying population.

Fast responses not just to testing and treatment but also to the social carnage the pandemic is leaving behind will go a long way into returning the world to some form of normalcy.

As East Africa joins the rest of the world in dealing with COVID-19, the pandemic’s global and local effects are likely to linger.

  • For example, Kenya’s stock markets reacted to the announcement with a massive fall, triggering a safety valve that hasn’t been activated since the repeat elections of September 2017.

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