As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread across Africa, countries are ramping up efforts to contain it. World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti spoke with Africa Renewal about the continent’s preparedness and response to the global pandemic:
This is part 1 of a 3-part interview with WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti covering Africa’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what WHO is doing in support of countries, lessons learned from the Ebola response and solidarity efforts underway to fight the spread of the virus.
Africa Renewal: Where is Africa in terms of preparedness and response to COVID-19? We see more countries able to test for the virus.
Dr. Moeti: I'm very encouraged by the progress countries have made overall and as far as diagnostic capacity is concerned. Several weeks ago, we only had two labs in two countries [South Africa and Senegal] where testing for novel coronavirus was available. Now 41 countries in the African region can diagnose this virus. Countries have also made progress in point-of-entry screening and establishing follow-up surveillance mechanisms. They need to expand on this so that any health worker — and more importantly people at the community level — can recognize the signs and symptoms of this illness. These are some of the capacities that have been rapidly built up.
Where is progress on the COVID-19 response needed most?
The areas most in need of progress include making sure that countries have the necessary supplies and equipment. First, we need personal protective equipment, to protect healthcare workers, and laboratory testing kits — this is very important. Admittedly, some of this is beyond the control of individual governments. We have a global-level market distortion which means some of these items are difficult to obtain.
There is also a need to improve on surveillance in many of our member states. From the point of entry, there is a need for close follow-up of people travelling from highly-affected countries. Then when people are put in isolation, including self-isolation, there needs to be some means of following up to ensure that this is actually happening. We have seen how in countries like China this was robustly policed initially until people adjusted to the idea and started to implement the measures themselves.
What about establishing COVID-19 treatment centres?
We also need better case management and the establishment of treatment centres for people with COVID-19. We recognize that most of our countries do not have enough critical care beds in intensive care units, so this can be [addressed] by creating and equipping special temporary field-type hospitals in field-type spaces. Experience in providing care is relatively limited in most African countries, so we will need to find ways of using available capacities in the most efficient way. People who have mild illness or who are infected but asymptomatic do not need to be admitted to hospital, where the beds are needed for seriously ill patients. So, clearly defining models of care, and starting with an approach that leverages the capacities for those who are critically ill, is something that, in my view, needs to be improved.
Which African countries are good examples of COVID-19 preparedness and response?
We have seen different countries manifest diverse aspects that are critical, at the political level, to a successful response. For example, some heads of state have made commitments to or have established high-level response mechanism, while others have set up commissions to coordinate their response. This has happened in countries like Kenya, South Africa and Ghana, among others. The most senior politicians – Heads of state - are being briefed on a regular basis by their ministers of health, prime ministers (who are sometimes coordinating these mechanisms) and also by our WHO country representatives.
We have also seen many countries communicating and encouraging people to take protective measures. Others have put in place measures that encourage people to self-isolate at home. Schools have been closed in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and other countries all over the region.