African officials pushed back Thursday against the global jostling to obtain medical equipment to combat the coronavirus, warning that if the virus is left to spread on the continent the world will remain at risk.
"We cannot be neglected in this effort," the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters. "The world will be terribly unsafe, and it will be completely naive, if countries think they can control COVID-19 in their countries but not in Africa."
While Africa's 1.3 billion people had a head start in preparing for the pandemic as the virus spread in China, Europe and the United States, Nkengasong warned that "the very future of the continent will depend on how this matter is handled" as cases, now over 11,000, quickly rise.
"The worst is still to come," he said, and pointed to the global Spanish flu pandemic of a century ago when cases came in waves.
Africa is competing with the developing world for testing kits that will help give a clear number of cases, as well as ventilators for patients in respiratory distress and protective equipment that front-line health workers desperately require. Already, anxious workers have gone on strike or gone to court in places like Zimbabwe over the lack of gear.
"We may not actually know how big is the size of the problem" without scaling up testing, Nkengasong said.
While 48 of Africa's 54 countries now have testing capability, that often is limited to countries' capitals or other major cities, officials with the World Health Organization told reporters in a separate briefing.
There is an "urgent need" to expand testing, the WHO Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, said, noting that clusters of community transmission have emerged in at least 16 countries. That means the virus has begun spreading beyond the initial cases imported from abroad.
"Some countries might face a huge peak very soon" in cases, said the WHO's emergency program manager, Michel Yao.
Even if testing kits and other equipment are found, another challenge is delivering them amid the thicket of travel restrictions. Cargo space is rare because many airlines have stopped flights to African destinations, Yao said.
Close to 20 African countries have closed their borders, and several are now under lockdown to try to prevent the virus' spread. Millions of people wonder whether nations will follow Rwanda's lead in extending the period that all but essential workers are confined to their homes.
Lifting the lockdowns will depend on the situation in neighboring countries, Nkengasong said. Otherwise, "what's the point? If Botswana or Zimbabwe have cases and South Africa opens up, you waste everybody's time."