30 March 2020 — As the coronavirus (COVID-19) has swept through Asia, Europe and North America, medical experts are warning that it is just a matter of time before Africa would see an exponential increase in cases.  The United Nations is rushing to protect Africa from the COVID-19 onslaught that would lead to massive losses of lives and unprecedented social and economic damage.   

The novel coronavirus is now poised to move fast into the developing world “in a very dangerous way”, and into areas that lack the resources to respond, said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a briefing to Member States on 27 March, calling for massive international solidarity necessary to help those countries.

As of 29 March, according to daily updates from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 1,187 cases confirmed in South Africa, 409 in Algeria, 146 in Burkina Faso, 140 in Côte d’Ivoire, 137 in Ghana, 119 in Senegal, 102 Mauritius,  91 in Cameroom, 68 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 65 in Nigeria and 60 in Rwanda.  Other countries reported less than 50 cases.

In Kenya, where 25 cases of infection and one death have been confirmed, the United Nations and the Government are working closely to strengthen their response and preparedness for a further spread of COVID-19.

“Advice to protect ourselves is clear: wash your hands well and often, self-isolate if you feel unwell, maintain social distance by avoiding crowded and public spaces and, if your symptoms worsen, contact medical services,” write Mutahi Kagwe, the Cabinet Secretary for Health in Kenya, and Siddharth Chatterjee, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya, in a joint op-ed. “Only by following this advice rigorously can we hope to stem the tide of new infections.”

“In sub-Saharan Africa as elsewhere, pressure on the healthcare workforce will intensify in the coming months,” they warn, stressing the importance of securing sufficient supplies of protective equipment, such as gowns, gloves, and medical grade face masks for use by healthcare personnel.

Even in the wealthiest countries, a lack of protective gear is causing a strain on doctors, nurses and paramedics who are in the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.  “The situation in poorer countries will be worse,” they write, adding that the Government of Kenya, the United Nations and the international community are exploring every avenue to ensure all the possible support for the health workers.

In Nigeria, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is supporting awareness campaigns by health educators in all 376 wards in all the local government areas of Lagos State, which makes up more than 14 million people, and similar programs in other parts of Nigeria, including Delta State.

A campaign is under way to explain what coronavirus is, its symptoms, mode of transmission, and ways to prevent it.  A team carried out simulations of how to wash hands properly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and how to sneeze or cough properly into the elbow, especially in public. School children were excited and curious to see the handwashing demonstration.

The country is also fighting against false information being circulated, which includes that the virus cannot survive in Africa because of the hot weather, that taking a high dose of chloroquine medication can protect you, and that consuming large quantities of ginger and garlic can prevent the virus.

Tanzania reported its first case on 16 March. A woman had travelled from Tanzania to Belgium on 3 March and returned on 15 March. The news quickly spread in the country, and normal life seemed to change overnight, reported UN staff Stella Vuzo in Africa Renewal, a United Nations publication focused on that region.

In Dar-es-Salaam and other major cities, people rushed to shops to stock up on food items, drinks and other essentials. Government officials have continued to educate citizens on the virus. The Health Ministry has issued a hotline number for people to call in case of symptoms, and President John Magufuli has asked Tanzanians to help stop the disease from spreading.

“This disease is very bad; I am losing my customers very fast. I depend on selling food to pay my rent and feed my family. I don’t know how I will survive if people don’t come to buy because of this coronavirus,” said Ms. Hassan, a food vendor. She is not alone in this predicament, with many other small-scale traders across the continent are facing this uncertainty, the author writes.

The UN team in The Gambia is working to support the Government’s preparedness plan, as the third case of COVID-19 is confirmed in the country, according to WHO’s latest figures. WHO and the Resident Coordinator are leading the UN team’s efforts, with WHO strengthening surveillance and lab preparedness, while several UN entities are supporting the Government’s communications efforts to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Handwashing, Social Distancing Difficult in Africa

The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is calling for support in preparing for the health crisis, and for a subsequent economic fallout. The measures being taken in Asia, Europe and North America such as physical distancing and regular hand washing will be a particular challenge for countries with limited internet connectivity, dense populations, unequal access to water and limited social safety nets.

“Africa may lose half of its gross domestic product (GDP) with growth falling from 3.2 per cent to about 2 per cent due to a number of reasons which include the disruption of global supply chains,” said Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) Executive Secretary, Vera Songwe in mid-March.

Ms. Songwe added that the continent’s interconnectedness to affected economies of the European Union, China and the United States is causing ripple effects. She said the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading, while on the other hand revenue losses could lead to unsustainable debt.

3 Asks for Wealthier Countries

The ECA is calling on the Group of 20 countries to support Africa in an immediate health and human response, deliver an immediate emergency economic stimulus to African governments in their efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and implement emergency measures to protect 30 million jobs immediately at risk across the continent, particularly in the tourism and airline sectors.

The ECA estimates COVID-19 could lead to Africa’s export revenues from fuels falling at around $101 billion in 2020. COVID-19, Ms. Songwe said, could reduce Nigeria’s total exports of crude oil in 2020 by between $14 billion and $19 billion.

Impact on UN Peacekeeping

Africa hosts seven of the 13 United Nations peacekeeping missions.  There are concerns that the ability of these critical operations to fulfil their mandates are negatively affected by COVID-19. During a briefing to Member States on 27 March, the Secretary-General said that to assist peacekeeping operations and special political missions, a Field Support Group is developing solutions to enable missions to address the health crisis while delivering on their critical mandates.  The United Nations, working with troop-contributing countries, postponed rotations of troops, as moving troops in and out of countries during a global health pandemic is extremely challenging.

The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) has reported that health professionals have raised awareness among the leadership of the almost 28,000 internally displaced people staying at the UN protection site in Malakal on how to prevent an outbreak of the pandemic Coronavirus among themselves.  So far, there are no confirmed cases in the country.

UNMISS reported that as the youngest and one of the poorest nations, South Sudan is at high risk, given the severely limited health services at its disposal. The densely populated protection sites for internally displaced people are of particular concern, given that practicing social distancing in these environments is more challenging than in most other places. Yet, it has to be done to the greatest extent possible to keep everyone, including humanitarian workers, safe.

“As leaders of your community, your role is to keep your people informed about these measures of prevention. From now on, it is our collective responsibility,” emphasised Hazel Dewet, head of the UNMISS field office in Malakal.