NATIONAL NEWS - The African experience is often dramatically different from any other, and her Covid-19 experience will undoubtedly be unique too.
World Health Organisation (WHO) experts addressed the media at the World Economic Forum on Covid-19 in an African context on 2 April.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa said that South Africa had the largest number of cases on the continent. The national lockdown was a concern for those who did not have formal employment and those who needed to earn day-to-day income.
She pointed out that the close living quarters in African countries such as South Africa were also a challenge saying, “It is very difficult to stay indoors… but this must be assessed in each and every country.”
But it still begs the question – is it feasible? According to Dr Moeti, each country needed to determine this for themselves, taking into account whether the population had adequate access to water, and whether they could be provided with water or alcohol-based solutions for sanitisation.
In a previous press briefing, the South African government indicated that water tanks had been distributed to densely populated areas.
With the recent chaos of panic buying in South Africa, food security was a concern. Lola Castro, the World Food Programme Regional Director for Southern Africa said that urban and rural food security must be looked at differently. Southern Africa had between 20 and 45 million people who were considered ‘food insecure’ and the lockdown was placing pressure on government systems and its need to supply food.
“Make sure that your most vulnerable are supported and protected,” Castro urged. The most vulnerable were those with HIV/Aids, and children. Children were a particular concern, she said, with many receiving their only meal of the day at school, which were now closed. “We need to find urgent solutions on how to keep them fed,” she stressed.
The WFP was already feeding 4.1 million people in Zimbabwe alone, and Castro put particular emphasis on the vital importance of the transportation of food between neighbouring countries continuing uninterrupted.
“South Africa is the humanitarian corridor. We must allow suppliers in South Africa to produce and we must allow the food to pass through the borders. It has continued over the past seven days; we really need to maintain this.”
Dr Moeti fielded a question on the success of the South African national lockdown thus far and whether it had lowered the risk of infection. “It is too early to say. The number of transmission cases will only show in some days from now. There are a lot more people to be tested,” she replied.
According to Dr Moeti there were now over 43 countries in Africa with testing capacity. Governments across the continent were reminded that the accurate and early sharing of Covid-19 stats was everyone’s responsibility. “It is a collective tool to benefit us all,” she said.
Castro also touched on the need for small-scale farmers to be protected, pointing out that many of these were run by women who produced and sold on a daily basis. She added that not only large farms but small household producers were willing and able to help feed Africa.
“Markets need to stay open, but must comply with regulations such as social distancing and sanitising. These farmers look after many families and communities.”
Health equipment challenge
Dr Moeti admitted that Southern Africa was facing a massive challenge with regards to its capacity to provide medical equipment, including ventilators. She said that there was no data currently available on the number of ventilators Southern Africa had access to and governments had been approached to assist in providing this information.
The desperate need for testing kits was a global one and Dr Moeti said the Chinese government had been asked to speed up the production of these kits.
She agreed that statistics on confirmed cases may be slightly distorted as they were not seeing every person who could be infected. The WHO had however expanded its capacity to speed up the testing process.
Dr Moeti stressed that all countries in the region were signatories to the International Health Regulations (IHR) and were obligated to share all information and data which would, in turn, enable authorities to collectively look at ways to curb the spread of the virus.
Myths doing the rounds that malaria-affected countries had lower rates of infection were debunked by Dr Moeti, who pointed out that Nigeria, Senegal, and Burkina Faso – where malaria infections were high, – had the same infection pattern as other countries.
The same applied to those who received vaccines against tuberculosis and other diseases as no evidence currently existed that this had any impact on infection rates. “Stick to the rules of washing your hands regularly, sanitising and keeping social distance. It is the only way to stop the virus from spreading.”
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