"Right now I am very concerned because we are starting to see an acceleration of the pandemic in Africa." With these words spoken last week, Michael Ryan, head of Emergencies at the World Health Organization (WHO), was trying to draw attention to a reality: the African continent, until now the second least affected by covid-19 after Oceania is experiencing a spectacular increase in infections. Just two months ago, the figures were 100,000 cases and less than 5,000 daily positive; Currently, the 850,000 patients have been reached, of whom 17,500 have died, and the rate of new affected is around 20,000 a day.
"And that we have not yet reached the peak," says Mery Stephen, Nigerian medical technician at the WHO regional delegation in Africa. In his opinion, "there is a long way to go". "The continent managed to slow down the spread of the pandemic with aggressive measures when it had very few cases, such as confinements, curfews and border closures, but governments could not keep them for long due to the socioeconomic peculiarities of the continent, where there are many people who lives daily. That relaxation is behind the increase in contagions that we are experiencing right now, ”he says.
Africa is diverse and there are also countries where the impact of covid-19 is being much less due to its small size, its insularity or its adequate management of the pandemic, such as the Seychelles, The Gambia or Mauritius. In others, with a larger population or ties to the outside world, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria, Kenya, Ethiopia or Madagascar, the increase in positives worries health authorities. But it is South Africa that leads all the records: it is the country that reports the most daily cases, an average of 13,000 the last week, the one that leads the number of infections with 435,000, that is, more than half of the African total, and the one that has buried more dead, about 6,655. It is already the fifth most affected country in the world after the United States, Brazil, India and Russia.
"You can't say the situation is out of control," says Laura Triviño, medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in South Africa, "but we are beginning to see how Johannesburg hospitals are saturating with patients." The epicenter of the pandemic in this country has shifted from the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, to the Eastern Cape, Gauteng regions, with the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria as the most active outbreaks, and Kwazulu-Natal. "Hospitals in the Eastern Cape are not ready, the death toll is even higher there," adds Triviño.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had ordered one of the world's toughest containments, but in late April decided to ease the pressure. Now he has just announced the suspension of classes for two weeks to try to cut the path to the virus. "The mask is mandatory and the borders are still closed, but most infections occur in shanty towns, where social distancing is more difficult," says Triviño. A disturbing figure was released this week: The South African Medical Research Council reported that between May 6 and July 14 there were 17,000 more deaths from natural causes than the average for that period. All indications point to the effects of the pandemic.
Also in Southern Africa, the Minister of Health of Madagascar made a public appeal to the international community on Wednesday, assuring that the hospitals were overflowing and that they needed protection material to prevent the spread of health personnel, as well as effective treatments. The WHO coordinator in Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, revealed that more than 10,000 health workers have tested positive on the continent, that only 16% of health facilities have optimal resources to deal with cases of covid-19 and that only 8% of these centers, just over 2,000, have the capacity to isolate patients.
International solidarity and, above all, making it easier for African countries to access the inputs they need is key. An example is the tests. With some 1,300 million inhabitants, only about 6 million tests have been performed, according to figures provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) of the continent. Its director, John Nkengasong, has asked governments to make an effort to increase their diagnostic capacity. Despite this, Mery Stephen does not believe that the official figures are much more affected by this lack than on other continents. "It is a global problem and Africa is no exception," he says.
In his opinion, the most important thing now is not to let his guard down. “We are witnessing a relaxation of individual and social behaviors. At first many people took it seriously, but then they did not see a large number of sick or dead and abandoned precautions. The perception of risks by governments but also by the population is going to be key to the evolution of the pandemic in the coming months ”, Stephen concludes.
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