India’s COVID crisis is wake-up call for Africa: AU health chief

Africa CDC chief urges Africans to wear masks and avoid large gatherings, warning of the continent’s fragile health systems.

John Nkengasong, Director of Africa-CDC, speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 at African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 10, 2020.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, speaks during a press conference on COVID-19 at African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia [File: Michael Teweld/AFP]

The calamitous COVID-19 outbreak in India is a wake-up call for Africa that its governments and citizens must not let their guard down, the disease-control agency of the African Union (AU) has warned.

African nations generally do not have sufficient numbers of healthcare workers, hospital beds or oxygen supplies – and the continent of 1.3 billion would be even more overwhelmed than India if cases surged in a similar way, said John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

“We are watching with total disbelief … What is happening in India cannot be ignored by our continent,” he told reporters on Thursday.

With 1.35 billion people, India has a similar population size to the African continent, yet Africa has weaker health systems, and unlike India does not manufacture significant quantities of drugs or vaccines, he said.

Nkengasong urged Africans to wear masks and avoid large gatherings, warning: “We cannot and should not find ourselves in [India’s] scenario because of the very fragile nature of our health systems.”

He said all political and religious gatherings and parties should be banned for the time being as they “give the opportunity for the virus to spread.”

The AU will convene a meeting with all African ministers of health on May 8, Nkengasong said, to “put everybody on alert”.

Delays in vaccine roll-out

Heeding public health guidance is critical in Africa at the moment because the continent’s roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines has been hindered by the crisis in India, Nkengasong said.

Some 17 million vaccine doses have been administered across the African continent, according to the Africa CDC. Countries that have administered the most jabs are Morocco, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.

The bulk of the vaccines supplied so far to Africa via the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) have been AstraZeneca shots manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. India suspended its exports of the shot in March to cope with rising domestic demand.

It remains unclear when exports will resume, Nkengasong said on Thursday, warning the situation in India could impact the predictability of Africa’s vaccine roll-out “for the weeks and perhaps months to come”.

Only 43 million tests for the coronavirus have been conducted across the African continent since the pandemic began, the Africa CDC chief said, with a 26 percent drop in new tests conducted in the past week.

Matshidiso Moeti, Africa’s chief official from the World Health Organization (WHO), also warned that African countries must step up key public health measures to help avoid India’s scenario occurring there.

The rate of testing for the coronavirus has dropped in “quite a few countries”, she said, and mentioned seeing data from one African nation in which the proportion of people not wearing face masks has risen to almost 80 percent.

“We are very concerned about the delays that are coming in the availability of vaccines,” Moeti added.

Her WHO colleague, Phionah Atuhebwe, called the delays to vaccine roll-outs “quite devastating for everybody” and said most African nations that received their first vaccine doses via COVAX will reach a “gap” in supply while waiting for second doses as early as May or June.

Atuhebwe also said Africa could benefit from additional supplies if two Chinese-made vaccines secure approval from the WHO next week.

“If we have more vaccines that have been approved for WHO pre-qualification, we know that more of these candidates can enter into our continent without any further issues,” Atuhebwe told an online weekly briefing.

The number of coronavirus cases in Africa has passed 4.5 million – 3.1 percent of the total global infections, including 4 million recoveries and 121,000 related deaths.

According to Africa CDC data, the continent recorded nearly 76,000 new COVID-19 infections from April 19 to 25, an 8 percent decline from the previous week.

India reported more than 379,000 new COVID-19 cases and 3,645 new deaths on Thursday alone. It was the highest number of deaths reported in a single day in the world’s second-most populous country since the start of the pandemic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies