Africa knows how to fight viruses — they simply need the resources, fast

Africa knows how to fight viruses — they simply need the resources, fast
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Only three people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the West African nation of Liberia. But even so, the country has sealed its borders, shut its airspace, and declared a state of emergency, closing schools, banning social and religious gatherings, and shuttering all but essential businesses.

Watching from the United States with our stay-at-home-order, one might wonder why such a drastic measure with so few cases for a post-conflict economy still reeling from the twin shocks of the West Africa Ebola outbreak and the collapse of commodity prices four years ago?

Consider this single contrast of capacity.


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is appealing for 30,000 ventilators to respond to the COVID-19 emergency in his state. In Liberia, a country of 5 million people, there are just three ventilators — and not one of them is in the public health system.

Bottom line: If Liberia cannot prevent the community spread of its few imported cases, the results could be catastrophic. And Liberia is no outlier. South Africa, the most medically-advanced nation on the continent, has 3,000 ventilators for 60 million people.

Much of West Africa has strict protocols in place carried over from the time of Ebola, which killed over 11,000 of its people. These protocols are helping to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Further, with few exceptions, African leaders have been pro-active, declaring states of emergency, and in some cases like South Africa, imposing a mandatory lock-down.

But no matter the quality of leadership and the strictness of the quarantine, the efforts of individual African nations will not succeed without additional resources, deployed with the urgency of an international disaster declaration — the same that would be set for an earthquake, a Tsunami, or a hurricane.

As of today, Africa currently has 4,351 COVID-19 cases across 52 countries, and data released earlier this week put the continent’s infection trajectory over the first 50 days disturbingly similar to that of Europe’s.

The World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, warned that the continent faces a "dramatic evolution" of the coronavirus pandemic. “We need help. We need global solidarity now.” said Moeti.    


The Global North, including Europe, the United States, China, and other parts of Asia, which make up 80 percent of global GDP, must mobilize with urgency to prevent the virus in Africa from reaching the magnitude we are seeing in the U.S., Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Weak and fragile healthcare systems will buckle. Think ventilators.

African nations must be given this opportunity to cushion it’s blow against our collective pandemic failure, including the lack of testing — the flaw that will continue to undermine every other countermeasure.

Here’s what we need to do:

First, testing needs to be rapidly scaled-up across the countries most infected and most at risk for community spread. The sick can then be isolated, and their contacts traced. This is a skill set already in place in much of Africa from the decades-long battle against HIV/AIDS, and more recently, against Ebola. The tests need to come from wherever, whoever, and whichever country can donate them. The more rapid and least laboratory-dependent the test, the better.  

Last week’s announcement by Abbott Labs of a 15 minute molecular point of care test with a portable instrument could be a game changer both for surveillance in the U.S., and containment in Africa.

Already, Ethiopia Airlines, Africa’s most reliable carrier, has been moving donated test kits and supplies across the continent. Addis can be used as the hub.

Second, the ad-hoc, every-country-every-donor-for-themselves effort, needs to be corralled with a continent-wide coordination mechanism.

The World Health Organization (WHO), along with the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC), have the health data on outbreak and needs; they know where the response needs to go. The IMF and World Bank have the economic data. These institutions need to move together, with one voice, for the sake of efficiencies in mobilization, and global advocacy. The United Nations Covid-19 relief fund should be integrated, as well as the private sector and its tested supply chains, like was done during Ebola.

And this must include China.

China has rolled out a donation-based public relations strategy to gain leverage while the rest of the world is struggling with the pandemic. The Chinese have the capacity to do a healthcare Belt-Road-like deployment in this time of global emergency. This must be demanded of them, especially given China’s irresponsibility at the onset of the outbreak.  

Third, we need to throw money at the problem, because if we don’t spend now, we will spend exponentially more later.

Last week, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced $14 billion and $10 billion respectively for a rapid response fund for Africa, which is not remotely commensurate with the loss of productive economic activity, the needs and the threat.

African finance ministers project that the continent will require immediate funding of $100 billion for disease response — and proposed a waiver of interest payments on $44 billion of debt. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres meanwhile estimates that at least $3 trillion U.S. dollars — 10 percent of the world’s GDP — will be needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus for vulnerable countries in the Global South. 

While America struggles at home, we must continue to lead on global health security, which has been a bipartisan priority for decades. The United States’ investment through the president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund have saved millions of lives and is now providing a backbone upon which African nations are responding to COVID-19.

And remember that it is the research conducted during the Ebola outbreak which has produced Remdesivir, one of the promising anti-viral medications in compassionate use trials in the United States for COVID-19 today.

When the unknown respiratory virus hit the city of Wuhan in December 2019, many saw it as China’s virus. It was “their” problem. This was a mistake of incalculable costs for the world. We must accept that the rapidly unfolding crisis in Africa is “our” problem. We must help African nations help themselves, it is who we are as Americans, and the only way to stave off the reimportation of the virus. Again — Think ventilators.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson