African states yet to reach peak infection rate as cases hit 100,000

Saturday May 23 2020

A truck driver walks through a sanitizing booth before going to get tested for the Covid-19 in Busia

A truck driver walks through a sanitizing booth before going to get tested for the Covid-19 in Busia, a town bordering with Ugand in western Kenya on May 14, 2020. PHOTO | BRIAN ONGORO | AFP 

ELIZABETH MERAB
By ELIZABETH MERAB
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The number of Africans who have tested positive for Covid-19 has hit 100,000 and health experts warn that the continent is yet to reach the peak of its infection curve. This puts to test ongoing plans to re-open economies.

Data by the Africa Centres for Disease Control (CDC) shows the continent reported more than 99,000 Covid-19 positive cases by May 22 afternoon, as the number of new infections rose to a daily average of more than 3,000.

Three-and-a-half months since the first case in the continent was reported in Egypt on February 14, most countries that went into lockdown are beginning to grow weary, with some already reporting plans to re-open.

“We have seen great successes in some countries like Mauritius, Namibia, and Eretria. Conversely, we have noticed a resurgence in other counties that have begun easing these measures. South Africa, for instance, is leading the continent in testing but has also recorded the highest number of cases. Rwanda has done a good job of tracing, testing, and treating. But it is difficult to ascertain the scope of the problem in all countries,” said Richard Mihigo, the immunisation, and vaccines development program co-ordinator at the WHO-Africa region.

So far, there have been more than 3,031 Covid-19 associated deaths, according to Africa CDC’s dashboard, and over 39,000 recoveries.

While the number of infections and deaths continue to rise across the continent, some countries have begun a gradual lifting of restrictions.

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Governments initially responded with travel bans and flight restrictions. Most implemented social distancing measures—including lockdowns and curfews— to try and contain the secondary spread within communities.

Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana are either in the process or have already re-opened significant segments of their economies, while others such as Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana continue to maintain lockdowns, but eased some restrictions on movement and association.

As pressure mounts to reopen businesses, health experts warn that such decisions risk accelerating the spread of the virus.

Rwanda early this month partially lifted its national lockdown, allowing businesses to operate. In Kenya, many people have gone back to business-as-usual despite the government maintaining its dusk-to-dawn curfew order and restriction of movements in and out of some areas where clusters of infections have been identified.

Tanzania is re-opening its entire economy, while Uganda plans to start lifting its lockdown from June 2 and reopening its schools for national examinations this year. President Yoweri Museveni recently announced that authorities plan to distribute face masks to all citizens aged six years and above.

Dr Mihigo says the decision to re-open or not is made more difficult by the difference in testing capacities.

“African countries find themselves in a very complicated situation. The structure of our economies is wired in a way that many people have to work daily to put food on the table,” he said.

Globally, the WHO on May 20 issued a warning that the pandemic is far from over, after 106,000 new cases were recorded worldwide—the most in a single day so far.

Speaking in Geneva, the UN health agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the virus was spreading in poorer countries, just as wealthier nations were emerging from lockdown. “We still have a long way to go. We are very concerned about rising cases in low- and middle-income countries,” he said.

The infection rate has been growing rapidly in EA with Kenya most afflicted with 1,161 cases, followed by Tanzania with 509 cases.

Uganda and Rwanda have reported 175 and 321 cases respectively while South Sudan and Burundi have posted 563 and 42 cases respectively.

The decision by some of the region’s governments to loosen virus-related restrictions underscore the greater pressure on economies to restore people’s livelihoods. But doing it well is an additional challenge.

“As it is now, these countries do not even seem to be in the same region,” said Catherine Kyobutungi, director of the Kenya based African Population and Health Research Centre.