Dakar, Senegal – When the novel coronavirus started spreading across Asia and Europe, Africa seemed to be spared.
On March 2, weeks after Europe started reporting significant daily spikes, only the second sub-Saharan African case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was discovered in Senegal. It was a French citizen.
A coronavirus epidemic in Africa could have potentially catastrophic consequences: Lack of medical capacity and the difficulty to maintain social distancing would let COVID-19 spread aggressively.
Armed with some headway, Senegal braced itself. The country had recent experience fighting the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016.
Senegal’s initial cases were linked to travellers and community transmission remained low. That changed mid-March when a Senegalese, returning from Italy, infected 20 people in Touba, the second most populated city.
The expatriate community in Senegal started leaving. Days later, Senegal closed its airspace. By March 23, the cases jumped to 79 and Senegal declared a state of emergency. That evening, President Macky Sall, while imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew, addressed the nation and said: “The situation is serious. I say this tonight in all solemnity.”
Dakar’s bustling city life came to a halt. Overnight, public gatherings were cancelled, communal prayers banned, schools shut, restaurants closed and beaches emptied.
The government avoided enforcing a total lockdown to avoid putting millions out of work.
Pape Diouf, former president of the Olympique Marseille football club, became the country’s first coronavirus victim.
President Sall spoke again on the eve of the 60th independence anniversary, announcing the country’s economic growth was to fall below 3 percent in 2020 from a forecasted 6.8 percent.
The disease was not yet killing masses but leaving a severe economic toll.
People in Senegal are aware that official figures may not reflect reality in the absence of large-scale testing.