• The structure and competence of public and private health systems in Africa are weak and woefully prepared to respond to or contain Covid-19.
• So, when it comes to acting, there is no such a thing as an overreaction.
We have a pandemic in our hands. It is spreading fast. Over 170,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported as of last week and an estimated 6,518 fatalities in 157 countries and territories.
Few leaders have any clue about how to deal with a pandemic. As we have seen, governments and health authorities have reacted rather late. And even when they have reacted, they have not made the right call. Moreover, public health systems, except in very few countries, don't have the capacity to cope.
We must admit that we understand very little about SARS-Cov-2 virus which, causes Covid-19 disease. We are, all of us, groping in the dark. However, the basic biology of the virus is well-understood and it is possible to explore which existing drugs have the best chance to cure the disease. A clinical trial evaluating a vaccine against coronavirus started in the United States.
Everywhere it shows up, Covid-19 spreads fast and aggressively. Going by the experience in countries such as Italy and South Korea, or even the US, by the time testing detects the disease in one location, it will be spreading wildly in numerous others.
The structure and competence of public and private health systems in Africa are weak and woefully prepared to respond to or contain COVID-19. Hence early and aggressive action to contain the virus is our best bet.
So, when it comes to acting, there is no such a thing as an overreaction. Hence, the decision by President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 15, to close all learning centres; primary schools, secondary schools, and all tertiary institutions was the right call. Governments in all countries that have reported more than one case must act aggressively to ensure unnecessary person-to-person contact is curtailed.
Africa cannot marshal material and human resources to respond as robustly as China, with rapid and mass-testing, aggressive contact tracing and ruthlessly efficient quarantine. Even the US or Italy–both very wealthy countries – have been unable to mobilize an efficient Covid-19 containment response.
As the pandemic spreads to Africa, we must learn from the lessons of South Korea, China and Italy. We must mobilize resources for sustained population-level testing. We must invest in resources to enable rapid and efficient contact tracing. While we cannot afford Chinese like ruthless quarantine, it must be enforced effectively to avoid forbidden contact between healthy and unhealthy populations.
Measures taken by countries such as the US and Uganda to restrict travel from countries that have reported positive Covid-19 protect national interests. But such measures undermine the larger global effort because they isolate countries and assume that they can somehow be insulated from the pandemic.
Covid-19, despite whatever nationalist bias one may have is a global pandemic. It must be resolved through global collective action, not national isolation.
There is more to be gained in slowing down the pandemic by pooling resources and building capacity across all nations to test, trace contacts and isolate infected individuals, regardless of their nationality.
Alex O. Awiti is Vice Provost at Aga Khan University. The views expressed are the writer’s