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From Africa, News of an Evolving Coronavirus Threat

Passenger screening at Maya Maya International Airport, Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. As a continent, Africa currently has the lowest number of reported coronavirus cases, but the World Health Organization has now released evidence of local community transmissions for the first time. ELOMBAT D./WHO

Many African governments, often insisting that all cases of coronavirus were imported from outside the continent by travelers, are now grappling with evidence of local community transmissions for the first time, according to a March 18 report from the World Health Organization’s regional headquarters.

“While most countries on the continent have recorded sporadic and imported cases, seven countries have exhibited local transmission, and this is concerning,” the report says, urging that it is time to respond with “innovative and low-cost interventions” in a continent where some communities may be ill-equipped and uncertain about getting help from abroad.

In total, 18 new countries in Africa reported coronavirus (Covid-19) infections between March 11 and 18. The new cases are arising across the continent, from north to south and east to west. “As expected, more countries in the region are going to be affected, with the establishment of local transmission,” the report said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization and Ethiopian. At a news conference on March 18 in Geneva, where the international agency is based, he warned Africans not to be complacent just because the continent’s current reported numbers of confirmed cases are low.

“The best advice for Africa is to prepare for the worst — and prepare today,” he said. He sent an impassioned plea to fellow Africans: “Africa should wake up. My continent should wake up.”

The African regional office of the World Health Organization said at the time of the report’s publication that a total of 345 confirmed cases had been reported in 27 countries to date, with South Africa accounting for at least 116 of them. (Africa has 54 countries.)

Estimates vary, however, with more recent reports of the number of cases much higher, and many more likely that have not been confirmed. Yet Africa is still the least-affected continent at the moment. (The United States alone, by comparison, is reporting 4,966 as of March 20.)

Health officials say that the main reason Africa has been spared major outbreaks so far is due to the infrastructure set up during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, as well as lower overall international air travel rates.

In North Africa, a region that belongs to what the United Nations calls MENA (Middle East-North Africa), the new continentwide report includes Egypt, with 196 cases and four deaths, followed by Morocco with 49 cases, two of them fatal.

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The 18 new countries reporting confirmed cases since March 11 are Benin, Central African Republic, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritania, Namibia, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania and Zambia.

At local levels, the World Health Organization in Africa, which is based in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, reports that it is offering support to projects designed to inform communities and engage people through radio and television to reduce “rumormongering.”

Locally spread popular misconceptions are putting people at risk in Africa, the Associated Press reported, in a roundup by journalists in several countries. For example, the news service wrote that in Kenya, the police said that a man accused of having the coronavirus was beaten to death. In Ethiopia, there have been reports that foreigners accused of being infected have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services, spat on and chased.

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported on March 19 that South Africa has just imposed regulations that criminalize “statements intended to deceive any person about  COVID-19 or the government’s response to the pandemic.”

The committee’s Africa program coordinator, Angela Quintal, warned in a statement that overreach could harm the country’s post-Apartheid press freedom.

“The COVID-19 pandemic must be taken seriously, but passing laws that emphasize criminalizing disinformation over educating the public and encouraging fact-checking present a slippery slope and send the wrong message to other countries that may be less measured in drafting such laws,” Quintal said.

Africans are getting technical help from the World Health Organization in data collection and analysis as well as training for communicating about, preventing and combating the disease.

Tedros announced at his news conference that the agency, partnering with numerous countries, will conduct a comprehensive global study of data “to show which treatments are most effective.”

Calling it the Solidarity Trial, Tedros said that the initial participating nations would be Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand.

“To suppress and control epidemics, countries must isolate, test, treat and trace,” he said, otherwise “transmission chains can continue at a low level, then resurge once physical distancing measures are lifted.” It is a lesson he was recommending that Africa heed, he noted.

 

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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