A smouldering pandemic in Africa

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Lusaka - Is the global fight against the new coronavirus pandemic winnable in the short to medium-term?

Of course, in the long term a sustainable solution will be found, unless anyone argues that this is an extinction level event.

But the worry remains what will happen before the long-term solution is found.

This is the storm buffeting Africa and the world as the pandemic continues to decimate lives and economies.

According to official data, more than 25 million people are infected and upwards of 850,000 have died. The number of recoveries is in the region of 17 million.

The fear is deaths in a prolonged pandemic, which is a possibility, could reach the 50 million mark as happened with the Spanish flu.

From 1918 to 1920, an estimated 500 million people - at the time roughly a third of the world’s population - contracted the Spanish flu and, depending on who is doing the counting, between 17 million and 50 million people died.

With COVID-19 marching on, the reality of a prolonged pandemic is rising.

The shortage of test kits and increased laxity in observing health regulations are cause for concern when it comes to short and medium-term management of the pandemic.

The UN’s World Health Organisation says government laboratories had suggested they could do 36,000 tests per day by the end of April but only managed a paltry one-fifth of that.

In Zambia, Health Secretary Dr Kennedy Malama has bemoaned the scarcity of testing reagents and consumables, which is a problem of serious problem across a SADC region that is Africa’s COVID-19 epicentre.

The logic is as grim as it is simple: as long as one region cannot significantly cope with the virus, the whole world is at risk.

“This (creates) a situation where all countries on Earth are affected by COVID-19, including those manufacturing the equipment and the reagents and ultimately, we are all competing on a limited pot globally,” said Dr Malama.

“We are doing everything possible to ensure that the testing capacity in Zambia is ramped up so that we move away from where we are at the moment.”

Dr Malama says Zambia has prioritised testing of asymptomatic patients, the aged and those with underlying health conditions, and “so far, it’s working well”.

Zambia is also targeting symptomatic patients and conducting contact tracing.

The country’s Health Minister, Dr Chitalu Chilufya, says people must take an active concern in keeping safe and knowing their status.

Ultimately, his position is that Zambia needs to mass test about 5,000 people daily to get a handle on the situation, while also warning that laxity in health protocols can undo all investments in testing and contact tracing.

The biggest offenders of virus control protocols, he noted are people attending funerals, parties and other social gatherings.

Before the nation’s parliament adjourned after three lawmakers succumbed to COVID-19, Dr Chilufya told legislators that in the absence of adherence to preventive measures, epidemiological modeling showed Zambia’s new coronavirus death rate could touch 1,000 daily in August/September this year.

Scientists have warned that COVID-19 could be mutating, hence the need to rigidly enforce prevention in the short-term.

Zambia’s response - like several other countries in SADC and the world - has been to impose penalties such as fines of US$40 on people who violate public health regulations.

WHO fears a worst case scenario of COVID-19 “smouldering” in Africa for several years, with a death toll of 190,000 in the next 12 months.

The UN agency says this could mean 10 million infections within six months on a continent that has just nine intensive care unit beds per million people.

“While  COVID-19 likely won’t spread as exponentially in Africa as it has elsewhere in the world, it likely will smoulder in transmission hotspots,” warned WHO Africa Region director Dr Matshidiso Moeti last week.

“COVID-19 could become a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region. We need to test, trace, isolate and treat.”

Nonetheless, it is not all doom and gloom.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa has applauded efforts by African states to fight the pandemic with minimal resources.

 “We have to recognise that African governments are doing a lot,” said UNECA director Stephen Karingi. “Projections were that we would be in a war situation by now, but because of the measures taken by governments and communities, transmission rates are lower than we’ve seen elsewhere.”

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