As COVID-19 infections soar in the United States, the African continent is bracing for a smaller surge, defying predictions that it would be hardest hit.
According to Africa’s top medical official, that's because the continent behaved as one indivisible unit in fighting the virus, with leaders working together to impose lockdowns, enforce mask requirements and work with continental officials to improve testing and treatment.
“The key, unifying leadership of the continent very early on in February has been a very critical factor in moderating the spread of the virus on the continent,” Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said to a collection of global health experts during a virtual meeting this week. “As a matter of fact, if the continent didn't go into a massive shutdown early on in March, with the rates in South Africa, for example, doubling every two days, I think that would have been a severe pandemic in South Africa.”
South Africa remains the continent’s epicenter, with 750,000 known cases, according to World Health Organization statistics, since the virus first landed in early March.
The reason that number is not greater, Nkengasong says, is that the continent acted swiftly.
When Egypt discovered its first coronavirus case in mid-February, he said, African public health officials sprang into action. A week later, experts from the African Union’s 55 member states convened at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, where Nkengasong is based, to come up with a plan.
Nine months later, he says that coordinated response spared the continent the worst of the pandemic, with 1.9 million recorded cases -- fewer than expected for a continent with such low levels of infrastructure and social safety nets.
And, he said, this fact merits recognition.
“COVID-19 really needs to be a catalyst for the continent to really argue for a new public order, where we truly focus on developing diagnostics on the continent, developing more clinical trials on the continent and developing the development of therapeutics on the continent,” he said, adding, “partnerships matter, and that has to be a very clear fundamental principle, guiding our ability to fight this virus using a cooperative approach, a collaborative approach, a coordinated approach and a communicative approach.”
Fauci laments U.S. approach
Across the ocean, Dr. Anthony Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the country hit hardest by the pandemic, the United States.
Fauci, addressing the same group of medical experts by videoconference late Monday, reiterated the five steps everyone must take to avoid the respiratory virus: wear a mask; keep a two-meter distance from others; avoid crowds; conduct any gatherings outdoors instead of indoors and regularly wash hands.
“If those five public health measures were adhered to, universally and consistently over the country, it is clear from our previous experience with other nations and even regions in our own country, we would not be having the degree of surging of cases that we are currently seeing,” he said.
In some U.S. states, political leaders have embraced those measures. In others, state governors have contested the importance of masks or declined to impose restrictions they say would hurt businesses.
Fauci said this is the result of these divergent policies.
“Around June 19th, we had the beginning of a resurgence of cases due to the attempts to so-call ‘reopen the economy,’ or ‘reopen the country,’ which was done variably with regard to adhering to the guidelines which came out, different states did it differently, and we had a resurgence back up to close to 70,000, went back down, stayed around 40,000 for a while, and now is going up to 86,000 with a mean, I say, an average of weekly, somewhere around 80,000,” he said. “Unfortunately...on November the 4th, we hit 100,000 cases in a single day.”
According to Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. currently has more than 11 million confirmed cases and is approaching 250,000 deaths.
Meanwhile, Nkengasong notes that Africa’s leaders are pushing the prevention measures anew as the continent braces for another coronavirus wave that seems to be emerging, concentrated in Algeria, Tunisia, Kenya and South Africa.
“A tail, a very worrying tail, is beginning to emerge, and we are recording now about 10,000 cases per day, very clearly showing that if something is not done, we'll be getting a second sooner than later,” he said.
Still, he vowed that if Africans stick together -- in spirit, not physically – the continent will show the world how it can beat the virus.