Remarks by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti [by teleconference]
Director General of the Danish Health Authority, Dr Søren Brostrøm,
Members of the diplomatic corps in Denmark,
WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge,
WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Takeshi Kasai,
Thank you to Dr Hans Kluge, for the invitation to this briefing so that I can share with you the status of COVID-19 in the WHO African Region.
First of all, I would like to acknowledge the close relations between the European Union and Africa, including through the African Union. This is appreciated, and we need solidarity between countries and regions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first confirmed case in the Region was reported from Algeria on 26 February 2020 – just over three weeks ago.
Since then, 28 countries have reported cases, and we now have over 400 confirmed cases including four deaths.
Apart from Algeria, Burkina Faso, South Africa and Senegal that have shown established local transmission patterns, the majority of confirmed cases in the affected countries are sporadic importations mainly from Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the USA.
Across the African Region, significant progress has been made in preparedness.
Early in February, all 47 countries participated in a baseline rapid self-readiness assessment led by WHO. We used the findings to inform our support to countries to improve operational readiness to respond to the first case of COVID-19.
In February, only two countries (Senegal and South Africa) had laboratory capacities to test for COVID-19. Today, 41 countries in the Region can do so.
We have held regional and in-country trainings on case management for COVID-19 and have conducted virtual sessions on infection prevention and control. Over 100 clinicians in 30 countries have been trained in critical care and clinical management for COVID-19.
We have provided logistics support in terms supplies for laboratories and infection prevention and control, including personal protective equipment. These were sent to 24 countries initially and we are continuing to send supplies to countries with confirmed cases.
Countries ramped up points-of-entry screening, including gathering passenger information to follow-up contacts in the event of an imported case for surveillance.
We have supported our Member States to develop national preparedness and response plans. We are also working with other United Nations agencies and partners to develop support plans. The Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan is a global platform to link these plans with resources that are being provided by partners.
The COVID-19 pandemic is particularly worrying for the African Region, as it threatens our already weak health systems. We know that critical care facilities are not well-equipped to manage severe cases.
There are other regional specificities: we have a very young population across the continent. Among young people in Africa, in some settings, we have high HIV prevalence, and in some areas, people do not have access to treatment. We also have a relatively high prevalence of malnutrition. Because of these factors, we may see a different pattern of spread in the Region. Children or young people may be more vulnerable to severe forms of the illness than we are seeing in other regions.
We also need to consider the socio-economic circumstances of many African people, both in urban and rural areas. Social distancing, the way it is being recommended, may be quite a challenge for some households. Some families don’t have a bedroom for every family member. There may be quite a few people sitting and sleeping in the same space. Some people are living in houses where running water is not available and so the possibilities of handwashing, in the way that it’s recommended (frequently and with soap), is a challenge.
For the regional response, we are encouraging active case-finding with early screening, and in this we have a challenge of test-kit availability.
Finally, with some of the measures being undertaken by countries: disrupted international flights and border closures also limit our capacities to procure and deliver COVID-19 supplies and deploy expertise.
The stakes are incredibly high for African countries and we are counting on international solidarity to support us in saving lives.
We must prepare for the worst. We have seen how the virus accelerates at a certain tipping point and our Region therefore requires substantial resources to contain, and in the worst-case scenario mitigate the impact of COVID-19.