COVID-19: Lack of regional coordination could lead to more deaths in Africa | Africa | DW | 15.05.2020
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COVID-19: Lack of regional coordination could lead to more deaths in Africa

A shortage of PPE in Africa has thwarted efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but a lack of coordination between regional leaders may prove to be a bigger contribution to the COVID-19 casualty toll.

The number of coronavirus cases in Africa is on the rise, despite many countries enforcing measures recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) — such as wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), following hygiene protocols and practicing "social distancing."

A lack of coordination on a regional level could hamper those efforts and lead to more deaths. WHO has already warned that up to 190,000 people across Africa could die from the coronavirus in 2020 if countries fail to abide by its guidelines.

Infografik Coronafälle Afrika 15. Mai 2020 EN

Regional muddle

Since early March, when the initial coronavirus cases were reported on the African continent, regional economic blocs have been sluggish to impose measures that would probably have flattened the COVID-19 curve.

"African countries have different approaches to imposing lockdowns because of the economic situation," Alex Vines, director of Chatham House's Africa program, told DW.

Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, and the East African Community (EAC) chairperson during a May 12 virtual conference rallied their regional counterparts to cooperate in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19.

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Low turnout

"So long as any member of our community is vulnerable, we are all at risk," Kagame said. "Therefore, we must work very closely together in the months ahead, to face this challenge as a community of partners."

Out of six leaders, only four participated in the conference: Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta, South Sudan's Salva Kiir, and President Kagame of Rwanda.

"We need to work for our people, and if we can't work together, the six of us, and have things moving, it doesn't mean that two, three, four shouldn't work, in these circumstances, to deal with the problems that we have to deal with," Kagame said.

Read more: South African app geared towards averting COVID-19 spread

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Uncoordinated approach

Conspicuously, Tanzanian President John Magufuli and Burundi's Pierre Nkurunziza didn't participate. Magufuli has rejected pleas to impose a lockdown and instead urged his people to seek divine intervention.

"Magufli's position is more political and ideological," said Vines.

"Tanzania has taken a more nationalistic strategy by ignoring WHO guidelines," he told DW.

"The paradox is that we are hearing that many Tanzanians are affected by COVID-19 despite economic indicators showing that it will be one of the few countries that will have GDP growth 2020."

On the other hand, Nkurunziza is busy with elections as cases in his country continue to soar. On May 14, Burundi expelled WHO representatives and declared them persona non grata.

John Nkengasong, Africa's CDC chief, has called Burundi's action "unfortunate" and said any differences shouldbe addressed by dialogue instead of actions that affect thepandemic response.

"We don't have the luxury ofkicking out the WHO," he told reporters. "This war has to be won in a coordinated fashion,and coordination is key. We're in dire need of expertise […] we encourage countries to do the right thing."

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Closed borders

On the west coast, the situation is not any different. During a virtual conference, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told national leaders from the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) that Ghana had decided to close borders with neighboring countries to stop imported cases.

"I think it's very important that we tailor a specific Ghanaian, response to the handling of this pandemic, and not necessarily copy blindly the methods that are being adopted by countries to the north of us and elsewhere," Akufo-Addo told the leaders.

But Alex Vines thinks "that there's need to have a common understanding of regional travel, especially that we are still at the beginning of the COVID-19 trajectory."

Regardless, in a joint communique, ECOWAS leaders reaffirmed their commitment to push for collective and coordinated efforts in the determined fight against COVID-19 and to take the appropriate measures to contain the impact and revive the economies.

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'Miracle herb'

Ghana has confirmed 4,700 positive cases, and 22 people have died of coronavirus-related causes the highest so far in the region. Another 494 have recovered.

Countries such as Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Liberia have already imported Madagascar's "miracle herb" Artemisia that has been touted to heal Coronavirus.

Togo and Chad have reportedly ordered the potion, others — such as Nigeria —are being more cautious.

However, WHO warned on its website that there is "no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be prevented or treated with products made from Artemisia-based plant material."

Read more: Opinion: Coronavirus conspiracy theories on the rise

Scramble for PPE

In southern Africa, the situation in Zimbabwe remains dire for health workers who are not given personal protective equipment (PPE) when dealing with patients showing coronavirus symptoms.

Zimbabwe is in the grip of its worst economic crisis in a decade, marked by shortages of foreign currency, cash, food, and medicines.

Kenyan fashion designer David Avido with a mask he made from cloth remnants

Kenyan fashion designer David Avido with a mask he made from cloth remnants

PPE shortage

At a recent virtual meeting of countries neighboring South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges the continent faces is access to personal protective equipment.

One of the biggest challenges the continent faces is access to personal protection equipment. "I have appointed Zimbabwean businessperson Strive Masiyiwa to assist with efforts to source personal protection equipment for the region and the continent," Ramaphosa told SADC leaders.

"I have also engaged with the leaders of various countries, such as Cuba, China, Russia, France, Canada, and the United States, to ask for support for the continent."

According to Vines, "African agencies have been pushing the Chinese to moderate their position, and the Chinese have agreed that they will synchronize their approach to debt relief with the Paris club for creditors. This approach is new and has not happened before."

Read more: COVID-19: Tests for 'miracle cure' herb Artemisia begin

AU's role

The African Union and its Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC) have been quite effective in advising on what standards are ethical and work very closely with WHO.

"There have been several AU initiatives that are pushing for immediate debt relief," said Vines.

Vines also thinks that some economies are too weak to follow specific routes. If you look at SADC countries, there's been different responses from Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.

"For example, a country like Mozambique cannot afford to impose a lockdown the way South Africa did."

There debates on how the disease will impact the continent are still ongoing, but the generosity of the international community to share information is going to be crucial.

However, African countries must avoid being squeezed by the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China about COVID-19, according to Vines.

It should be noted that the virus has spread quickly on the continent over the last weeks, with infections topping 75,543 by May 14, while more than 2,500 patients have lost their lives, according to the latest figures from Africa Center for Disease Control.

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