Interview. We spoke with the deputy director of the Africa CDC, Ahmed Ogwel Ouma, who explained the strategy and his hope that widespread testing may be the answer. ‘People are going out due to the need to earn a living.’

Coronavirus will pummel Africa, where ‘lockdown’ means starvation

“Africa could become the next epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic,” warned the World Health Organization last week. According to the WHO, there could be over 10 million infected on the continent over the next six months, and according to estimates, 300,000 people are likely to die, with another 30 million Africans at risk of poverty due to the economic crisis.

Over a period of 10 days, the number of infected people had risen from 10,000 to 26,000, with just over 1,200 deaths and over 7,000 recovered. Il manifesto spoke about the situation with Ahmed Ogwel Ouma, deputy director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the body set up by WHO to combat the pandemic on the African continent.

The WHO warned that COVID-19 could have a “devastating” impact on Africa. How is everything going?

The pandemic is spreading from one country to another gradually and in an irregular manner, but much slower than in Europe, the United States or China. Transmission of the virus has been faster and more intense in the north, in countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, due to proximity and increased contacts with the European continent. The countries of Central and Southern Africa, with the exception of South Africa, have been less affected. It must also be said, however, that some of the data is corrupted due to the number of tests which is still insufficient, especially in the sub-Saharan belt. At the moment, however, we are still able to contain the infection, thanks to the measures taken by the various countries.

Many virologists are fearing a mortality rate of more than 10%, but the current estimates indicate a lower percentage. Based on which factors?

As I said, there are numerous differences within the 55 countries of the continent. It can be said, however, that in many countries we have had few infections and we have also managed to contain the number of deaths, while in others, where the pandemic has had a similar impact as in Europe, deaths are on average at the levels estimated by the virologists. We are supporting all countries in increasing their capacity to perform swabs and take all countermeasures, from the use of masks to social distancing to the enactment of lockdowns, although we are preparing for worse scenarios, in line with other continents. On the basis of our research, we can say that we are not seeing a greater level of resistance of the African population to the virus, or a lower incidence linked to age, given that we have had numerous infections and deaths of people of all ages throughout the continent.

When is the CDC predicting that the peak of the epidemic will occur?

It is not possible to predict this, but the next four weeks will be crucial to get a better understanding of the course of the epidemic, which is currently steady. What we are trying to do by using all the means of fighting it is, in fact, to avoid an exponential increase in contagions, more difficult to manage and with a higher incidence of deaths, trying instead to maintain a “flat curve” or a “controlled trend” for the contagion. Our main strategy is to progressively increase testing in order to have greater traceability. We expect to do 1 million tests in the next four weeks and over 10 million in the next six months, in all countries on the continent. In our opinion, this is the only tool to counter the contagion, with the means we have.

African health ministers met with the WHO and CDC on Feb. 22. Is there a higher level of pan-African coordination for the management of the pandemic?

There is a real continental strategy to fight the virus, and thanks to our supervision, a medical-scientific research task force has been created. The strategy is divided into the following 4 phases: coordination, collaboration, cooperation and communication between different states. The joint coordination has also served to overcome the global shortage of protective or therapeutic devices (masks, respirators) in order to make the different countries more autonomous. The best way to support them was to provide them with the know-how to obtain all the medical and protective equipment they needed, ensuring a certain level of quality. Our research, on the other hand, aims to evaluate some drugs that may alleviate the effects of the virus, but most importantly to produce tests that are fast and with reliable results.

Are social distancing, lockdowns and quarantine measures also possible in slums or mega-cities like Lagos or Cairo?

Lockdowns are difficult to apply in many contexts on our continent, precisely because there is an ”informal” economy and people are going out due to the need to earn a living, to get food. There is a strong debate involving different governments with the aim of understanding what measures can be effective, without stoking or increasing social tensions. We have recommended using the right mix of all measures to counteract the contagion, although the best strategy to encourage the recovery of economic activity and isolate infected people more quickly is the use of tests on a massive scale. In the coming weeks, we will try to adopt this strategy in those countries—around 30 or so—which have had few cases, so that we’re able to see if this is the way to prevent the pandemic from spreading more widely in Africa.

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