Top African public health official: Coronavirus poses 'existential threat' to continent

Top African public health official: Coronavirus poses 'existential threat' to continent

The coronavirus pandemic presents an “existential threat” to Africa, a top public health official for the continent said Thursday, noting that only five of its 54 countries have yet to report any cases.

Dr. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters that cases across the continent are above 6,000 and that Africa has grown “very, very close” to the position Europe was in after 40 days of viral spread, according to The Associated Press.

The virus, Nkengasong said, “is an existential threat to our continent,” adding that officials are “aggressively” exploring obtaining equipment such as ventilators and looking at options for repurposing manufacturing for medical purposes.

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“We’ve seen a lot of goodwill expressed to supporting Africa from bilateral and multilateral partners,” he said, but added “we still have to see that translate into concrete action.”

World Health Organization (WHO) regional director Matshidiso Moeti told reporters the WHO does not currently know how many ventilators are available across the continent, saying, “We are trying to find out this information from country-based colleagues. ... What we can say without a doubt is there is an enormous gap.”

Ventilator availability varies widely, with only three available in the Central African Republic, according to the AP.

“Countries like Cameroon just reached out yesterday, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, asking, ‘Look, we need tents because we’re running out of hospital beds already,’” Nkengasong added.

Numerous countries also face a testing backlog or test shortages, although countries in the sub-Saharan region have dramatically expanded their testing capabilities, with 43 countries reporting capability after only two reported the same in early February.

As is the case in Europe and the U.S., many African nations have imposed lockdowns that are at odds with large numbers of low-income workers dependent on the income they earn from jobs they cannot perform from home, which Moeti called a “huge challenge.”

“Don’t lock down the whole country,” Nkengasong said, according to the AP. “Lock down cities or communities where there’s extensive community transmission so ... social harm is minimized. But if infection is spreading across the entire country, you have no choice.”