On Friday we released a special podcast episode that covered some of the key facts and updates related to the spreading coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan China. I mentioned that the great concern for the World Health Organization (WHO) and most of the leading global health organizations is now Africa. This brief post explains why global health organizations are concerned about a coronavirus outbreak in Africa, the nature of the current vulnerabilities and why it may already be too late.
The first symptoms of the mystery virus in Wuhan China occurred on December 12, 2019. The first death occurred on January 11, 2020. At that time there were 41 confirmed cases of the Wuhan Coronavirus (since renamed COVID-19). As of February 23, 2020 there are nearly 80,000 confirmed cases worldwide and 2,500 deaths from the Wuhan Coronavirus. This is what occurred in one of the most tightly managed authoritarian states in the world. Today, the virus has spread to nearly 30 countries. Confirmed cases in South Korea and Italy are compounding on a daily basis in the last few days. Iran has 7 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus. It is unclear how the virus arrived in Iran to these victims. This is a brief picture of how fast this outbreak is moving. From zero to 80,000 in approximately 60 days.
Nations across the globe are taking steps to protect their borders from the spread of COVID-19. Air traffic has been significantly reduced or halted for traffic from China to various countries around the planet. Travelers to and from Wuhan have been quarantined. Cruise ships have been quarantined. Supply chains have been suspended, virtually guaranteeing economic consequences in the coming weeks. In spite of all these measures, the outbreak is continuing to spread and grow.
Africa has a massive population of 1.2 billion people spread across 54 countries which could facilitate the spread and growth of a coronavirus outbreak on the continent. Most of the nations of Africa lack the levels of centralized control that has been demonstrated in China and other parts of the world.
In the first week of February, representatives from 15 African nations converged in Dakar, Senegal to discuss these concerns. Even if the control measures are there, the nations of Africa lack the resources to properly diagnose and quarantine the virus when it arrives.
At the time of the meetings in Dakar, only Senegal and South Africa possessed the lab testing facilities to test for COVID-19. After the meetings Nigeria, Ghana, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone received resources from the WHO to strengthen the health system on the continent. Today there are 11 lab testing facilities, but this is still far short of what is needed to guard 1.2 billion people across 54 countries against importing the coronavirus.
Nations of Africa ranked near the bottom of a recent report showing the lack of global preparedness for a pandemic outbreak or biological threat. The reasons included those described above and also porous borders between African nations and communities as well as the weak infrastructure of the health system in Africa. The highest cause for alarm was the lack of trust between the public and the governments of the nations of Africa. Even if the resources and systems were strengthened, would the public comply with steps necessary for protection from a coronavirus outbreak in Africa?
In 2003 Africa was barely touched by the SARS pandemic. There was only one death in Africa. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is not as high as SARS but the spread of the new virus has already far exceeded the prior outbreak proving it is much less likely to be controlled. Since that time the economies of China and Africa are more interconnected. Estimates vary but 200,000 to 2 million Chinese live and work in Africa today. Many of them recently returned to China for the lunar new year celebrations. Now they are returning to Africa. Additionally, approximately 81,000 Africans receive their schooling in China. They are now returning home. The implications are obvious, hundreds of thousands of potential COVID-19 carriers are possibly returning from China to various nations within Africa.
Mozambique stopped issuing visas for Chinese travelers in February. South Africa stopped accepting packages from China. But other nations, Ethiopia for example, are not taking such measures. Experts wonder if the efforts are not unified and total across the continent, will they be effective at all.
A new model predicts the virus, if and when it comes to Africa, will likely come through Egypt, South Africa or Algeria. Egypt reported its first case a couple of weeks ago but so far reports of the significant spread of the virus have not taken shape.
There is no vaccine for COVID-19. We are at least a year away. Various treatment measures are being tested but there is no solid tactic for treating those who test positive for the virus that is being implemented globally.
A coronavirus outbreak in Africa is coming. In recent days the commentary from experts at various international health organizations shifted from a concern about preparation to a warning about what is coming. When this occurs, the coronavirus outbreak in Africa will take the global pandemic to a whole new level of crisis and severity.