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Africa’s quick response to Covid-19 deserves credit, but there is more to be done

By The Africa Report
Posted on Friday, 30 April 2021 17:01

John Nkengasong, Africa's Director of the Centers for Disease Control, speaks during an interview with Reuters at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa
John Nkengasong, Africa's Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), at the African Union (AU) Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

For much of the first year of the pandemic, Africa fared much better than many outsiders had predicted. In part, this was thanks to its excellent healthcare professionals and some outstanding public health institutions – although the continent is chronically underserved, statistically speaking.

Two organisations stand out in the continental effort, both led by distinguished African physicians: Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under its director, Cameroonian epidemiologist Dr John Nkengasong; and the Africa regional headquarters of the World Health Organisation under Dr Matshidiso Moeti.

At the international level, two more senior African officials – Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the WTO – are coordinating on common projects such as promoting the development of vaccines as a global public good, and arguing for a time-limited suspension of intellectual property rights.

Africa’s success so far in containing the virus has involved virtual coordination meetings with CDC collaborating centres, ministries of health and national public-health institutions. The regional centres set up communications networks to monitor and verify reports and alerts from member states.

Data collected by the CDC’s event-based surveillance team were channelled to a live dashboard that would help build a picture of the rate of infections across the continent and measures that could best contain it.

From a sprint…

Africa was quick off the mark with its initial response last year. The CDC launched its Emergency Operations Center for Covid-19 on 27 January, a few days after reports of an initial outbreak in China, followed by cases in four countries in east Asia.

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Within three weeks of opening its emergency centre, the CDC briefed a special meeting of Africa’s health ministers to adopt a continental strategy to contain Covid-19.

Together with the WHO’s regional headquarters, run by Moeti, the CDC and its national counterparts set up a task force that would pool regional expertise via technical working groups focusing on priority issues.

Their task was to analyse the latest evidence, which would be fed into recommendations for policy and measures to strengthen preparedness. Initially, the priorities were detection and containment. That meant building 40 new coronavirus testing laboratories in February and March last year.

…to a marathon

Shortages of medical equipment, testing kits and personal protective equipment triggered a wave of innovation across the continent.

Epidemiologists at the Institut Pasteur in Dakar and in Abuja collaborated on a cheap and rapid diagnostic test, also developing alternatives to costly ventilator units. Thanks to this, officials have a clearer idea today of what is needed at public health facilities in terms of triage protocols, intensive care units, oxygen and critical-care medications.

In the next stage of the pandemic, vaccine distribution looms large. The Covax distribution programme will cover only around 20% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people this year. The African Union, in a scheme underwritten by Afreximbank, may be able to double that coverage over a longer period.

Ernest Darkoh-Ampem, the Ghanaian founder of Cape Town’s BroadReach, calculates that for Africa to reach herd immunity within a year (meaning about 780 million people), it would need to vaccinate seven million people a day. That is without new strains emerging that require re-vaccination.

While the continent’s early successes deserve credit, the response to the pandemic is destined to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Above all, this will mean a huge investment in public health institutions and professional training to ensure that responses to the pandemic do not undermine other priorities. Winning the battle for political and financial commitment for that, would count as one of the key long-term successes of this era.

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