Africa could become coronavirus epicentre after 43% rise in cases

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Africa has seen a 43% jump in reported coronavirus (Covid-19) cases in the last week, following a warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) that the continent of 1.3 billion people could become the next epicentre of the pandemic.

Around 183,770 global coronavirus deaths had been recorded at the time of writing. So far, Africa has escaped the worst of the pandemic, recording just 1,243 of those deaths. The continent, however, has a “very, very limited” and “very, very strained” testing capacity, according to John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that the surge in infections on the continent is likely to be even higher in reality, he said in his weekly briefing on 23 April.

The WHO’s recent report painted a grim picture for Africa. It warned the virus could kill more than 300,000 people and push 30 million into desperate poverty.

Nkengasong said Africa still has time to avert such a disaster, but testing people and tracing virus cases is critical.

“It all depends on what we are discussing here,” Nkengasong said, “which is, are you testing? Are you finding the cases? Are you isolating and tracking the contacts? It is not a prediction that means it must happen.”

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By Nkengasong’s own criteria, however, Africa is struggling on the testing front. In the two months since the continent began mobilising to fight the outbreak, fewer than 500,000 tests have been conducted. That is just 325 people tested per 1 million people in Africa, Nkengasong stressed. That is far lower than Italy, one of the world’s worst-hit countries, he said by way of comparison.

African governments reported nearly 26,000 cases as of Thursday, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, up from just over 16,000 a week ago. Although those figures are still relatively small in the global picture (there have been around 2,662,118 confirmed cases around the world), the sharp increase is a cause for concern, Nkengasong said. The previous week saw an increase of 29%.

“If you don’t test, you don’t find. And if you don’t test, you are blinded. If you don’t test, you are not ahead of the curve,” Nkengasong stressed.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control has a target of conducting 1 million more tests in Africa over the next four weeks and 10 million tests in the next four months. The overall effort is badly hampered, Nkengasong insisted, by a major obstacle – the existing fragility of the health services in many African countries.

“I’d like to make sure I make this very clear,” he said. “It is an uphill battle to build health systems while you need them. That is what we are actually doing now. We are playing catch-up and that is a very, very tough thing to do.”

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