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COVID-19 highlights the urgent need for the African continent to protect its health systems and communities

Published : 15/05/2020

Attributed to Yacine Djibo, Founder and Executive Director, Speak Up Africa

The challenge Africa is currently facing is two-fold; curbing the spread of COVID-19, whilst also maintaining access to essential health services for those suffering from other diseases. As COVID-19 diverts attention and requires an immediate response, now more than ever it is crucial that we protect our health services and ensure that progress made in tackling issues such as malaria, immunization, neglected tropical diseases and inadequate access to sanitation is not compromised.

Now, the pressure is on to slow down the number of infections and ramp up testing for COVID-19, all while maintaining access and treatment to help safeguard citizens from Africa’s other ongoing health threats. The stakes are high. For example, last month the World Health Organization warned that COVID-19 could double malaria deaths this year alone if we do not act quickly and properly to safeguard malaria programs across the continent. Ultimately, if we are indecisive and divided in our response to coronavirus, then the continent may undo decades of progress against health, as more people unnecessarily suffer from preventable diseases like malaria.

Whilst this paints a bleak picture, there is hope for the African COVID-19 response, and already we have seen great initiative and leadership from the African Union, Africa CDC, Heads of State and communities across the continent. By ramping up training of health workers, increasing access to live-saving treatments, rapid diagnostics and preventative measures, improving supply chains and availability of effective medicines and medical equipment, building in country lab capacity and so on, not only will we rise against COVID-19, but continue to make incredible steps towards ridding the continent of some of our deadliest diseases.

Now, we must be dedicated and unified in our response against this new threat, and we call on governments, partners, and communities to continue the fight against COVID-19, by acting now to save lives by adhering to the proven preventative measures, protecting our health workers and strengthening our health systems.

Aren’t the dynamics on the continent different though?

COVID-19 has left no corner of the world untouched, and whilst the African continent is certainly threatened by this new virus, with the need to act quickly and aggressively, the good news is that our cases and deaths are still relatively low when compared with the rest of the globe. That said, infections have continued to rise, demonstrating why the need for action is so great. Even though Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with 77% of the population under 35, several risk factors mean the virus could spread quickly across borders. High population densities, communal living, frequent and close contact between generations, as well as the constrained access to water and washing facilities all increase the likelihood of coronavirus infections and fatalities.

What is being done?

To date, African governments, heads of state, organizations and communities have shown incredible resolve in the fight against COVID-19, tackling this new virus with a range of measures. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has raised $3 billion in a three-year bond to help alleviate the economic and social impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on livelihoods and Africa’s economies, whilst The African Union and the Africa CDC have established a continental COVID-19 response fund with a total combined pledge to date of $61.5 million. WHO’s Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) has also scaled up preparedness efforts in the continent including providing COVID-19 testing kits to countries, training health workers and strengthening surveillance in communities. Forty-seven countries in the WHO African region can now test for COVID-19 as opposed to two at the beginning of the crisis. WHO has also issued guidelines to countries and is supporting them on the use of electronic data tools, so national health authorities can better understand the outbreak in their countries. The private sector is also playing a role e.g. Ecobank Group has contributed about US$3 million to the fight against COVID-19 on the continent mostly in the form of healthcare equipment and supplies. These are all excellent initiatives that we should celebrate. However, it is more important that we support them first, after all, they will mean nothing if people do not adhere to the social and behavioral guidelines in place too.

Individual countries are also coming up with their own solutions e.g. Ivory Coast and Ghana respectively announced a $200 million and $100 million contribution to enhance their preparedness and response plans. The Central Bank of Kenya has put in place emergency measures to provide relief to loan borrowers whose repayments are due, while the South African Reserve Bank has cut interest rates, to list a few country-level economic interventions. COVID-19 is affecting us all, this is a fact. That is why also having sympathy and support for our fellow Africans is key, we must all do what we can.

That is why Speak Up Africa, as a strategic communications and advocacy not-for-profit organization based in Senegal, has chosen to launch the Pan-African ‘Stay Safe Africa’ campaign, which is a collective platform to equip organizations across Africa to raise awareness of preventative health measures, reduce the circulation of misinformation and encourage communities and individuals to take appropriate steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring access and treatment from other ongoing health threats. As an immediate and African-wide threat, it was critical that efforts against COVID-19 were coordinated, to unite organizations, avoid delays in effective responses, unify the messaging, and of course, protect as many lives as possible.

 

We must all be proactive to stop the spread of COVID-19, as it will be through a cohesive and consistent African-led approach that we will be able to address the continents uneven access to tools and services, whilst protecting our citizens from existing and emerging threats. Unity is crucial, which is why our Stay Safe Africa campaign brings together partners, journalists, civil society organizations, private-sector companies and country and local leaders to work towards our common goal. We urge all members of society to get involved, as every one of us can play an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19. By increasing investments and awareness, together with distance, we can and will protect our nations from this new threat.

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