The World Health Organisation has revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic has crossed a milestone in Africa, with more than 100 000 confirmed cases. The virus has now spread to every country in the continent since the first case was confirmed in the region 14 weeks ago.
A statement from the WHO says despite crossing this threshold, the pandemic, which has struck with such devastating force in much of the world, appears to be taking a different pathway in Africa. Case numbers have not grown at the same exponential rate as in other regions and so far Africa has not experienced the high mortality seen in some parts of the world. Today, there are 3100 confirmed deaths on the continent.
By comparison, when cases reached 100 000 in the World Health Organization (WHO) European region, deaths stood at more than 4900. Early analysis by WHO suggests that Africa’s lower mortality rate may be the result of demography and other possible factors. Africa is the youngest continent demographically with more than 60% of the population under the age of 25. Older adults have a significantly increased risk of developing a severe illness. In Europe nearly 95% of deaths occurred in those older than 60 years.
African governments have made difficult decisions and were quick to impose confinement measures, including physical and social distancing, which will have significant socio-economic costs. These measures, which along with contact tracing and isolation, expanded or increased handwashing have helped to slow down the spread of the virus.
“For now COVID-19 has made a soft landfall in Africa, and the continent has been spared the high numbers of deaths which have devastated other regions of the world,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “It is possible our youth dividend is paying off and leading to fewer deaths. But we must not be lulled into complacency as our health systems are fragile and are less able to cope with a sudden increase in cases.”
The continent has made significant progress in testing with around 1.5 million COVID-19 tests conducted so far. However, testing rates remain low and many countries continue to require support to scale-up testing. There is a need to expand the testing capacity in urban, semi-urban and rural areas, and provide additional test kits.
Cases continue to rise in Africa and while overall it took 52 days to reach the first 10,000 cases, it took only 11 days to move from 30 000 to 50 000 cases. About half of the countries in Africa are experiencing community transmission. More than 3400 health care workers have been infected by COVID-19. It is important that health authorities prioritize the protection of healthcare workers from COVID-19 infection at medical facilities and communities. There is also a need to provide enough personal protective equipment to health care workers and raise their awareness as well as increase infection prevention and control in health facilities.
“Testing as many people as possible and protecting health workers who come into contact with suspected and confirmed cases are crucial aspects of this response. Despite global shortages, we are working hard to prioritize the delivery of testing kits and personal protective equipment to low- and middle-income countries that have the most vulnerable populations, based on the number of cases reported,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
Despite the relatively lower number of COVID-19 cases in Africa, the pandemic remains a major threat to the continent’s health systems. A new modelling study by WHO predicts that if containment measures fail, even with a lower number of cases requiring hospitalization than elsewhere, the medical capacity in much of Africa would be overwhelmed.
Now that countries are starting to ease their confinement measures, there is a possibility that cases could increase significantly, and it is critical that governments remain vigilant and ready to adjust measures in line with epidemiological data and proper risk assessment.
WHO has offices in every country on the continent and is working closely with the Africa Centres for Disease Control, Ministries of Health, United Nations agencies and other partners to support the scale-up of the response through coordination, technical expertise, the provision of much needed medical supplies and assisting with data collection and analysis. WHO has trained more than 7000 health workers, including 1000 district health teams to support the decentralization of the response. So far, more than 225 experts have been deployed to over 39 countries in Africa and over 900 staff have been repurposed at the regional and country level to support the response.
WHO and UNHCR join forces to improve health services for refugees, displaced and stateless people
In another development, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency today signed a new agreement to strengthen and advance public health services for the millions of forcibly displaced people around the world.
The agreement updates and expands an existing 1997 agreement between the two organizations. A key aim this year will be to support ongoing efforts to protect some 70 million forcibly displaced people from COVID-19. Around 26 million of these are refugees, 80 per cent of whom are sheltered in low and middle-income countries with weak health systems. Another 40 million internally displaced people also require assistance.
For more than 20 years, UNHCR and WHO have worked together worldwide to safeguard the health of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. They have collaborated to provide health services to refugees in every region – from the onset of an emergency and through protracted situations, consistently advocating for the inclusion of refugees and stateless people in the national public health plans of host countries.
Today, the two organizations are working side by side to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that forcibly displaced people can access the health services they need, to keep safe from COVID-19 and other health challenges.
“UNHCR’s long-term partnership with WHO is critical to curb the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies – day in, day out, it is improving and saving lives of millions of people forced to flee their homes,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. “Our strengthened partnership will directly benefit refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and those who are stateless. It leads to better emergency response and will make the best use of the resources of both our two organizations for public health solutions across all our operations globally.”
“The principle of solidarity and the goal of serving vulnerable people underpin the work of both our organizations,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “We stand side by side in our commitment to protect the health of all people who have been forced to leave their homes and to ensure that they can obtain health services when and where they need them. The ongoing pandemic only highlights the vital importance of working together so we can achieve more.”
During Thursday’s signing UNHCR also joined the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The Fund was launched on 13 March and has so far raised $214m to date. The Fund, first-of-its-kind, allows individuals, companies, and organizations all over the world to directly contribute to the global response being led by WHO to help countries prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19.
A $10 million contribution from the Solidarity Response Fund will support UNHCR’s work on urgent needs such as risk communication and community engagement around hygiene practices; provision of hygiene and medical supplies and the establishment of isolation units in countries such as Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, South Sudan and Uganda.The funds will also support innovative global preparedness activities.
“By joining forces with the Solidarity Response Fund, UNHCR can work together on the ground with WHO to better ensure that the preparedness, prevention and public health response measures to COVID-19 are in place and that much-needed aid can reach refugees, displaced people and their host communities,” said Grandi.