Kenya joins growing list of African countries facing COVID-19
Stephen Ndegwa
Medics work at the coronavirus isolation center at the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, March 6, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Medics work at the coronavirus isolation center at the Mbagathi Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, March 6, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

Editor's note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication consultant, and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

The press conference by Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 15 came as a shock. After weeks of hoping, and almost believing, that COVID-19 would not be discovered within the country's borders, Kenyatta announced that Kenya had recorded its first case involving a woman who had traveled back to Nairobi from the U.S. via London.

Taking no chances, and using the best practice from China and Europe, the government announced a raft of drastic measures to start addressing the situation. These included suspending incoming traffic from any country that has reported COVID-19 cases – except for Kenyan citizens and residents; suspending of learning in all education institutions; avoidance of congregating in both social events and places.   

Since then, government institutions have been releasing their own COVID-19 prevention procedures and regulations. At the center of the pandemic's response in Kenya is the Ministry of Health, which is heading the COVID-19 task-force formed by the government.

African countries that have currently reported cases of COVID-19 include Ethiopia, Guinea, South Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Togo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Gabon, South Africa, Nigeria, and Cote d'Ivoire. Statistics released on Tuesday revealed that Africa had 300 conformed COVID-19 cases, with Egypt recording 110 cases. 

Global health experts fear that if urgent and stern measures are not applied immediately to arrest the situation, COVID-19 will be a ticking time-bomb in Africa. The greatest fears are related to the fact that African countries do not have the requisite health services capacity for the prognosis and treatment of COVID-19.

An airport employee wearing a face mask checks passports at the entrance of the airport in Dakar, Senegal, March 10, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

An airport employee wearing a face mask checks passports at the entrance of the airport in Dakar, Senegal, March 10, 2020. /Xinhua Photo

The COVID-19 global pandemic in Africa is still at the first stage of individual-to-individual transmission. But there are fears that the situation will soon worsen, due to misleading information that Africans are immune to the novel coronavirus due to the hot tropical weather in the continent, and the dark melanin on their skin. Such erroneous beliefs simply add on to other myths and superstitions, both cultural and religious about the nature of the pandemic.

Unlike the more advanced countries with meticulously planned infrastructure, many African countries suffer from grave infrastructural deficiencies, which can make the best preventive and curative strategies fall between the cracks.

Another potentially escalating factor is overcrowded habitats. The World Bank estimates that 90 percent of Africans live in informal housing, where living conditions are often substandard, unsafe, and without essential services like water, electricity, and sanitation. Just one infected person has the potential of spreading the virus to hundreds of people in a single day.

Moreover, the communal nature of African communities poses a hindrance to quarantining people on a large scale. Africans, both in urban and rural settings, love to congregate in largely informal situations. Containing such populations would need extreme state of emergency measures.

Similarly, public transport is also one of the biggest headaches in Africa. Over two-thirds of Africans rely solely on public service vehicles for their daily commute. In Kenya, for instance, over half a million citizens commute to and from home using crowded and highly unhygienic "matatus" (minibuses used as a taxi).

Since this sector is largely unmanageable, only social distancing can reduce the potential infection among such a large number of passengers. Where possible, more companies should allow their employees to work from home, which is one of the recommendations for managing a lockdown.

The majority of Africans earn a living running small and medium-sized enterprises, which are located in almost every nook and cranny in both urban and rural areas. Introducing lockdowns in such environments will lead to large scale starvation, since it would destroy the hand-to-mouth livelihoods of millions of Africans.  

With COVID-19, national economies are also now highly exposed. According to a report by South Africa's Rand Merchant Bank, African countries with the highest overall COVID-19 risk include Kenya, Ghana and Egypt. Countries with least exposure include Nigeria, Botswana, and Mozambique.

On Monday, the World Bank donated 60 million U.S. dollars to help Kenya enhance both COVID-19 response and mitigation capacity. This will include enhancing surveillance, laboratory services, isolation units, equipment, supplies, and communication.

On the same day, Chinese e-commerce billionaire and Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, pledged to donate 1.1 million test kits, six millions masks, and 60,000 protective suits and face shields to all African countries. In a tweet following the announcement, Ma observed that, "The world cannot afford the unthinkable consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa."

To ensure survival of their people, African governments have to revert to the use of previously used strategies. Due to the fact that the continent still has a large illiterate and semi-literate population prone to believing fake news, local administration officials in countries like Kenya are physically driving around their areas of jurisdiction addressing residents using public address systems.

Like the rest of the world, Africa is now entering uncharted waters, and will learn new swimming tactics with the fast changing waves of COVID-19. However, the impact of the virus will be manageable if governments follow best practice and ensure they break the progress of the virus at the current individual transmission stage, in order to void transmission through social gatherings.

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