Since Africa identified its first COVID-19 cases in February the continent has recorded more than 1.3 million cases. There have been rapid responses to regulate the movements of people and goods, and encourage social distancing, the pandemic has inevitably spread across the continent, albeit with a critical variation in the number of cases by country.
Familiar vulnerabilities make African societies and economies highly prone to the pandemic and its consequences. Some of these inadequacies are of particular concern. Inadequate quality of health care, coverage and access, availability of medical personnel, mostly in remote areas, and the prevalence of other diseases raise concerns about the response capacity on the health front.
Moreover, the constant structural weaknesses of the continent overexpose African countries to the economic consequences of COVID-19. These include high dependency on imports in areas such as food, drugs, machinery and equipment, weak local production systems, limited quality and coverage of digital connectivity, and predominance of informality and micro firms, among others.
Nevertheless, if some factors may reduce Africa’s exposure to the pandemic, such as its youth population and a certain level of preparedness to pandemics owing to previous outbreaks including the 2004 Ebola crisis, the continent is at high risk. The African region has shifted from Coronavirus outbreak preparedness to COVID-19 response, from the time the first case was reported in China in January 2020.
Meanwhile, African governments have reinforced response measures, building on the early steps such as enhanced surveillance, detection and movement restrictions taken even before the virus hit the continent.
The COVID-19 pandemic is testing health care and disaster management systems of countries and the agility of policy responses to effectively handle a public health catastrophe.
At the beginning of February 2020, only two reference laboratories in Senegal and in South Africa could run tests for COVID-19 on the continent. Africa’s testing capacity remains low, with the 37 ADF-eligible countries accounting for only 40% of completed COVID-19 tests to date.
Meanwhile, the African Development Bank’s Board of Directors on Wednesday, September 9, 2020 approved $27.33 million in grants to boost the African Union’s (AU) efforts to mobilize a continental response to combat and ease the impact of the pandemic.
A WHO progress assessment on the performance of health systems as part of efforts to attain universal health coverage found that Member States in the region have gaps in different capacities, with the most acute seen in poor physical and financial access to services, and low resilience of health systems.
The COVID-19 outbreak has underscored the high risk countries face if their populations are unable to access available services, and if the systems are not resilient enough to absorb stress and sustain service provision during a shock event.
To minimize the impact of the pandemic, there must be improved COVID-19 response coordination, a common voice to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatment, and stronger health systems and public health emergency preparedness and response.
African countries will need to have logistics and supply chain systems which can reach not only the traditional target populations for routine immunizations and campaigns but be ready to vaccinate a much larger target population.
While the race to find safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines continues, African countries are signing up to a groundbreaking initiative, which aims to secure at least 220 million doses of the vaccine for the continent, once licensed and approved.
The sequencing under way is already providing crucial information for choosing the type of SARS-CoV-2 lineage circulating in some countries. It has shown that most of SARS-CoV-2 genomes spreading in Africa are assigned to the B.1 lineage which emerged from the epidemic in Europe.
In Africa ten lineages have been identified and more than 80,000 sequences have been produced globally. Grouping viruses from diverse countries into the same lineage or sub-lineage has indicated a linkage or importation of viruses between countries.
Countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Africa are experiencing localized transmission, while there is also importation of cases in the DRC from Ghana, Morocco and Senegal.
Unfortunately, data modelling capacity on the continent are still very low. Centres such as the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which launched a master’s degree program in machine intelligence in 2018, are critical for building data modelling capacity. Investments to scale these centres and other training and research institutes in data science are vital for the development of human capital in the field.
Aside capacity building, more needs to be done to build a resilient infrastructure as well as provide researchers access to data with specific research and policy goals given that the devastation of the climate crisis will only get worse, and Africa is already feeling its impact.
Up to now, data collected on the continent presents marked differences in infection rates between urban and rural areas. For instance, Senegal’s capital city of Dakar has accounted for the majority of the country’s infections, providing an important incentive for building better urban health and planning foresight capacity.