COVID-19 in Africa: One Year later

On the 8th of May 2021 the African Union (AU) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) convened a high level emergency meeting of African ministers. The purpose of the meeting was to review and reflect on the impact that COVID-19 has had on Africa and evaluate the implementation of the Joint Continental Strategy to combat the virus.

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IMF Photo/Saiyna Bashir
IMF Photo/Saiyna Bashir

The COVID-19 virus was first discovered in China towards the end of 2019, but did not arrive on African shores until early 2020.  In the year since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, the continent has been greatly affected.  COVID-19 has not only exposed the weaknesses in African states’ healthcare systems, but it has also had far-reaching consequences on livelihoods, education and economic growth in Africa.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has consistently called for unity and global solidarity to fight the pandemic. Africa has managed to illustrate this solidarity through its unified continental strategy. However, although Africa has seen fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths  as compared to other regions, it is important to note that due to the pandemic, it has suffered major disruptions to its health services. To maximise efforts to fight the pandemic, the Director-General of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom asserts that the continent should prioritise three specific areas namely production, prevention and preparation. To that end, COVAX is part of the vaccine production and distribution initiative which has already been utilised in 47 African countries. WHO continues to work with African partners to increase production to ensure that the vaccines are accessed by everyone and are circulated appropriately and fairly. To strengthen this, Dr Tedros has called for African countries to participate in the draft resolution on local production at the forthcoming World Health Assembly.

Healthcare systems are not the only tool required to respond to the #COVID-19 pandemic. @katharine_bebs @Amutinha_14

The Africa CDC, endorsing the recommendations of Dr Tedros, also suggests prevention, monitoring and treatment. Strong prevention measures must be put in place which calls for all African countries to work closely with Africa CDC.  Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC, states that all African member states must increase the ability to refer samples to regional labs and specialised labs to expand testing as this is the only way to determine accurate COVID-19 numbers. In addition, the Africa CDC has reported 3 variants in its 55 member states; B1.3.5.1 variant which is found in 23 states; B 1.1.7 variant which was reported in 22 countries and 4 countries have identified the B.1.617 variant which is the one which is predominant in India. With that said, it is important that Africa enhances surveillance and introduces new monitoring tools and adapts the current continental strategy to changing realities. Taking lessons from India, Africa should also enhance its treatment strategy by equipping all member states with oxygen to make sure that COVID-19 can be managed from both hospitals and homes.

As much as the African Joint Strategy has been commended it is also important to note that it encountered challenges as well. Wessam Mankoula, Head of the Africa CDC Emergency Operations Centre suggests that it has been difficult to share data in a timely and regular manner, while inadequate cross border agreements for harmonised implementation of agreed strategies and lack of data about countries capacities, shows that co-operation amongst African states has its limitations.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent has exposed the gaps that exist in the preparedness responses to deal with pandemics in Africa.  Additionally, following the original outbreak of COVID-19 in China, many states adopted a wait-and-see approach to the virus, leading to many months of inaction that could have been used to better prepare healthcare systems to deal with the outbreak of a virus of this magnitude.  

Chair of the @_AfricaUnion, President Felix Tshisekedi outlined the need for innovative economic activities to ensure that #Africa’s fragile economies can recover from #COVID-19 @katharine_bebs @Amutinha_14

Africa is no stranger to the outbreak of diseases, and the COVID-19 pandemic only added to the number of diseases that the continent is having to combat.  For example, in Gabon, doctors and healthcare workers involved in programmes to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) had to be redeployed to tackle COVID-19, undermining the fight against other healthcare issues.  Gabon was therefore unable to offer the same access to healthcare to people suffering from diseases other than COVID-19.  The need to reassign healthcare workers away from programmes combatting diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB illustrates the lack of capacity that exists in African healthcare systems, as there are simply not enough doctors and healthcare workers to combat existing diseases and COVID-19, highlighting the need to train more doctors and nurses in Africa.  

However, healthcare systems are not the only tool required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As was identified by H.E Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an effective response to COVID-19 also requires strong political leadership, trust between citizens and institutions and social cohesion in order to formulate a strong response.  Citizens need to trust their governments and comply with the regulations that they introduce in order for preventative measures such as social distancing and mask wearing to be effective.  However, if this trust does not exist and there is a lack of social cohesion, compliance with preventative measures will be low and the spread of the virus will not be slowed.  This will only serve to prolong the pandemic and exacerbate the consequences.

Globally the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to cost the world $10 trillion in economic output by the end of 2021, serving to illustrate the economic impact of the virus.   In Africa, COVID-19 has undermined the economic progress that Africa has made in the last few years.  As a result, the current Chair of the AU, President Felix Tshisekedi outlined the need for innovative economic activities in order to ensure that Africa’s fragile economies can recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccines still represent the best possible solution to bringing an end to the pandemic, or at least the best possible solution to lifting the stress on healthcare systems.  However, the longer the vaccines remain inaccessible, the longer the pandemic will persist and the greater the impact of COVID-19 will be on healthcare systems, economies and society.

Katharine Bebington and Paidamwoyo Mudzimuirema are both interns at ACCORD.

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.

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