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Lessons for Africa in the COVID-19 pandemic


2017 Tutu Fellow Yap Boum II has written a post titled Coronavirus: Amid the global pandemic, lessons for Africa which was published by the Brookings Institution on 20 March 2020.  Yap, who is a microbiologist and epidemiologist and the regional representative for Epicenter Africa, the research arm of Doctors Without Borders, started the article by saying that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, bringing enormous human, social, and economic disruption. It's been a busy time for Yap, with the Coronavirus pandemic following the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he was on the frontline in a Phase III trial ebola vaccine to reduce the numbers of people infected by the disease.

In the article, Yap says that for Africa, where most countries have relatively weak health systems, the relatively slow arrival of COVID-19 bought Africa time to prepare.

Working with the World Health Organisation and the Africa Centers for Disease Control, national governments have been mobilising precautionary measures.  He said that since most African countries were within the containment phase of the epidemic curve, time was of the essence, and urgent action to prevent an epidemic had to be the overriding objective.

He listed four early lessons to heed in responding to the ongoing outbreak:

  • Act with speed and thoroughness to prioritize prevention of an epidemic. Early action consisting of case identification, tracing and containment measures, clear and transparent communication with the public, and resource mobilization is critical precisely because most health systems on the continent are fragile and likely unable to absorb the shock of a global pandemic, especially the management of severe cases.
  • Heed lessons from Africa’s history of infectious disease epidemics. The 2014 Ebola outbreak led some countries to create or empower national public health institutes to focus on disease preparedness and responsiveness in the case of an epidemic. And the Nigeria Centers for Disease Control (NCDC) was already handling an ongoing Lassa fever outbreak, which has a much higher mortality rate (23 percent) compared to what is estimated for coronavirus (3 percent). The NCDC is now actively addressing the COVID-19 emergency response, with the credibility of an independent institution run by experts working in the public interest and independent of political interference.
  • Leverage big data, information technology, and predictive modeling to anticipate the health and economic impact of the epidemic and to guide decisionmaking. Africa has the youngest population in the world with a median age of 18 years, compared to 41 years in Europe. While the mortality of COVID-19 varies from country to country, the age and health of the population seem to be major factors, with the highest mortality rates recorded in patients aged above 60 years old.
  • In our globalized world, prioritize partnerships. African governments must urgently increase their investments in scientific research and medical infrastructure, and proactively seek partnerships at the continental and global levels. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar are already leading the way, working with a biotech laboratory in the United Kingdom to produce a cheap, rapid diagnostic test for COVID-19, manufactured in Senegal, that could reduce diagnosis time from 4 hours to 10 minutes.

The full article, which Yap co-authored with Yvonne Mburu, can be read at the Brooking Institution website.

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