Covid-19 has spread fast across Europe, and all European nations are taking urgent action to reduce the impact, to varying timetables and with varying degrees of success. But the virus is now also taking hold in countries across Africa, and the continent has a small window of time to prepare and scale up its response.
Africa is important in its own right, and because this is a global pandemic, we need the virus to be suppressed everywhere for the world to return to normality.
This is why developed countries have a clear self-interest as well as moral obligation to do all they can to assist Africa to overcome the Covid-19 crisis.
Building on lessons from other countries who have been fighting the disease for weeks, African governments have already started introducing tough measures to restrict the spread of Covid-19, from launching lockdowns to declaring states of emergency. But the challenges faced by African governments in combatting Covid-19 are unique. Their health-care systems are already stretched. Conventional social distancing is next to impossible. The prevalence of already life-threatening conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis and acute malnutrition means the population vulnerable to coronavirus is large. There are acute shortages of trained medical staff, medical supplies and crucial equipment. A major additional crisis will take their systems beyond the breaking point. And since this is a global pandemic, it is essential not just for them but for all of us that they get the help and assistance they so urgently require. Right now they’re at a low level of confirmed cases though it is hard to judge what the true figures may be. So the more African nations are helped now, the less the burden on them and on us will be later.
According to external reporting and analysis from my Institute, African nations are several weeks behind in the advance of Covid-19. The virus is currently spreading more rapidly on the African continent that anywhere else in the world. While the early spike in reported cases is a testament to quick government action on the continent, with limited testing capacity, the rising numbers present a clear cause for concern. Even if only 5 per cent of populations became infected with a 2 per cent fatality rate, Covid-19 would infect more than 50 million people across sub-Saharan Africa. Firm, urgent action is needed continent-wide in order to have maximum impact.
There are four things leaders in Africa need to do right now:
Own the response and drive action across government and society. Set up a central crisis-management structure to handle every element of the response, and have this team report directly to the head of state.
Focus on tracking, tracing and strict suppression measures now to slow the spread of the virus, including appropriately enforced isolation.
Ensure that social-distancing measures are matched by measures to protect livelihoods and vulnerable groups and ensure food distribution.
Develop strategies for managing a significant epidemic, including protecting health-care workers so they can continue to work and building up the necessary pipeline of testing and treatment equipment.
To support this effort, my Institute has been entirely repositioned and repurposed to provide the practical support governments need. Before Covid-19, we had more than 100 staff embedded within governments on the ground in Africa. I am proud of the fact that – like during the Ebola crisis – the TBI teams are staying in country to work alongside those in government to do all we can to ready countries for what is about to happen and to defeat the virus.
Our work – currently in 14 countries in Africa, with new requests for help every day – is varied and bespoke, depending on the needs of the individual country, but with a focus on advising governments in establishing their crisis-management centres. We are also helping to identify critical supply needs for PPE, respirators, ventilators and test kits, and providing analysis and insights on the disease, the economic impact and the technological solutions available to offer rapid lessons to leaders. So far, for example, our embedded teams are supporting the crisis response coordination for several presidents, including in the Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Togo. We are also supporting the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, have advised on overhauling the national emergency response in Burkina Faso, and have supported the repurposing of textile manufacturing operations in Ethiopia to produce PPEs.
But there is much work left to be done. Africa presents a unique challenge, and the approaches that have worked in Asia and Europe may not be effective or feasible. There is a debate emerging about whether harsh shutdowns are appropriate given the likely social and economic impacts, for little public health benefit. Distracted by the crisis at home, much of the international community has been slow to consider this predicament and offer solutions for Africa.
African countries must go further, faster than anywhere else. It is not just political leaders who bear responsibility for helping this effort and limiting the damage caused by the pandemic.
Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in this fight. I can’t stress this enough. They played a vital role during Ebola in saving lives by helping communities to adjust their practices. They must step up now to protect their communities by avoiding large gatherings and educating people on behaviour changes needed.
International partners who are currently preoccupied by the pandemic at home must start to focus and coordinate on the support needed across Africa.
Global experts need to study the trajectories across Africa and tailor solutions to the specific circumstances of the countries there. Testing must obviously be ramped up: Most African countries have only a few hundred or thousand test kits, which works out to less than three tests per 100,000 people in some cases. But until test kits are widely available, governments and societies must find new ways of flattening the curve.
Above all, we need a concerted effort to mobilise the material, equipment, expertise and funding to ensure that the poorest countries are given the help they require.
Global coordination is necessary at a number of levels, and over the coming weeks we will be setting out ideas as to what needs to happen globally and how it can happen.
But right now, it is an urgent priority to help those countries with the least advanced and resilient health-care systems.
Unless we work together across national boundaries, the potential for devastation in Africa is immense. The time for such coordinated global action is now.