While South Africa has been hit hard by COVID-19, other African nations have better managed the coronavirus. There have been growing calls to boost testing to reveal the true extent of the pandemic on the continent.
Susan Joshua, 30, sells roasted maize on the roadside in Abuja’s Maitama district. She and her family’s livelihoods depend on the business.
When Abuja, Nigeria’s administrative capital, went into lockdown in late March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Joshua was confined to home like millions of other Nigerians. Now life is slowly returning to normal in Abuja.
“We are back [at business],” she told DW. “We usually sell more than this, but now we can’t, sometimes we eat only once or twice in a day.”
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 200 million inhabitants, has so far recorded 37,948 confirmed cases — that’s 0.4 per 100,000 people.
Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari has been credited for taking COVID-19 seriously.
He has mobilized all government institutions to control the pandemic and initially announced a lockdown in significant cities and later extend it to the entire country.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) has praised the Abuja leadership, saying Buhari’s administration has successfully handled the virus.
“You must praise the government of Nigeria and the center for disease control. Without their efforts, the numbers could have been skyrocketing,” Dr. John Nkengasong, director for the Africa CDC, told DW.
But back home, critics say there are insufficient, or absence of test centers and result takes several days to be announced — according to Dr. Abubakar Umar, a political scientist at the University of Abuja. “If you look at the entire handling, it is below average, so I am not particularly impressed with what the president has done so far,” Umar told DW.
The virus gets out of hand in South Africa
South Africa — with over 400,000 recorded cases — has the fifth-highest number of infections after the US, Brazil, India and Russia. It is shutting down public schools after it had reopened them in early July.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said his government decided to close classrooms to avoid schools from becoming sites of transmission when the country’s coronavirus infections are rising at one of the fastest rates in the world.
The increase in the number of the cases is a result of both aggressive testing, and the virus being present amongst the most vulnerable populations.
“One thing pandemics do, they take advantage of disparities in any situation and amplify that,” the Africa CDC director said. “I worry that you see this more and more in many capital cities with shanty towns around them.”
In a televised address on Thursday, Ramaphosa also announced an expansion of a multibillion-dollar coronavirus relief program and an intensification of the fight against corruption and theft of aid.
Are there any shining lights?
Health experts and the Africa CDC have praised Uganda for keeping COVID-19 cases low despite increases elsewhere.
So far, Uganda has a little over 1,000 confirmed cases, and one recorded death — thanks to a very strict lockdown, according to Professor Yap Boum, Africa’s representative for the epicentre research arm of Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“Uganda’s testing strategy is paying off with a thousand cases in the newly six months of the outbreak. For such a big country, it is quite impressive,” Boum told DW.
The Africa CDC also praised Rwanda’s Partnership To Accelerate COVID Testing (PACT) platform that promotes efficient testing and contact tracing.
“Rwanda has deployed more than 1,000 community health workers to help with contact tracing,” Dr. Nkengasong said, adding that could emulate the Rwandan strategy in fighting the pandemic.
The East African country has so far recorded 1,710 coronavirus cases and small parts of the country are in lockdown.
Other good examples are Cameroon, Angola, Mauritius, Uganda and Mozambique.
How reliable are these Covid-19 figures, though?
So far, the whole continent has carried out in a total of 7.2 million tests.
In all these tests, 80% of them were conducted in 10 countries only. These are South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Mauritius, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.
Central African region has conducted less COVID-19 tests than the other areas with only 330,000 in total.
“This is a serious concern for us. We will start focusing on this region very aggressively to increase the number of testing,” Dr. Nkengasong said.
The target for Africa CDC is to raise this number to at least 1% of the continent (approximately 15 million people) per month.
What can be done to improve Africa’s response?
There’s a need for sensibilization and testing capacity that target the entire population and those at risk of making a severe form of the disease, said Professor Boum.
“We now know that around one in six cases in Cameroon and DR Congo has comorbidity or is older than 60 years of age. This means there is a need to sensitize this population to limit the mortality specifically,” Boam said.
Deniability is one of the major problems, according to health experts. Some Africans still believe that COVID-19 is a regular cold and overrated by the West.
“People grumble more than they comply [with health measures],” Dr. Umar said.
What are the challenges ahead?
Gilead Sciences earlier this month announced the price of remdesivir, a drug that shows some promise in treating COVID-19. A course of treatment on private insurance in the US costs $3,120 (€2,689).
Clinical trials have shown that remdesivir shortens hospitalization times and severity of illness, reducing recovery times by as much as 47% in some patients.
Africa, according to Prof. Boum, has neither access nor financial ability to afford this medicine.
“In the meantime, patients are using all options including traditional medicine,” Boum said, adding that this challenge provides an opportunity “to assess both western and African medicine and see how they are complementary in many ways.”
DW’s Uwaisu Idris from Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.