By mid-March 2020, 44 African countries had reported nearly 2,000 cases and 59 deaths caused by COVID-19, a pandemic that has seen nearly half a million infections globally since the first reported case in late 2019.
Although Africa currently has few reported cases in comparison to other hard-hit countries, including China, Italy, Spain and the USA, experts warn that this could only mark the beginning of an uphill battle for the world’s second-largest and second-most populated continent.
“Africa will be the hardest hit by the impact of the outbreak,” says Senait Bayessa, International Director of SOS Children’s Villages in Eastern and Southern Africa.
“Many African health systems, already overburdened with different illnesses, do not have the capacity to respond to a pandemic of this proportion,” Ms Bayessa warns.
Availability of test kits, capacities for large-scale testing, implementation of prevention mechanisms, and resources for treatment of infected persons are inadequate. Further, insufficient measures to raise awareness about preventing an infection may quickly lead to overflowing hospitals and high fatality rates.
Beyond the widespread health-related repercussions, the outbreak could paralyze already struggling economies. Many preventatives measures undertaken by other countries to combat the pandemic, like social distancing and lockdowns, will be near impossible to implement across Africa.
“As most families in Africa live in poverty and are striving to get food on a day-to-day basis, it will be difficult for families to stay home and prevent social contact,” Ms Bayessa says.
Dr. Deqa Dimbil, a doctor at a mother-child clinic in Mogadishu, Somalia, echoes Ms Bayessa’s concerns.
“What really worries me are the side effects of the crisis – the hunger that the economic crisis might trigger,” Dr Dimbil says. “Without imports we will not be able to sustain ourselves. The prices will be astronomical and an already poor population will no longer be able to provide for itself.”
“If it comes to that,” Dr Dimbil warns, “the virus-related deaths will be the least of our concerns.”
Ms Bayessa notes that COVID-19 might pose a particular threat to families and family structures as well, adversely affecting children. In Africa, the impact of HIV/AIDS has left a large number of children in the care of grandparents across the continent. With older people more vulnerable to the virus, children who have already lost their parents might now also lose their grandparents.
“The spread of the virus could result in more family separations, making it extremely challenging for African governments, donors and development partners to implement responses for affected children in time,” Ms Bayessa warns.
“We need to be prepared for the fact that children will lose parents,” Dr Dimbil says. Especially vulnerable are those with weakened immune systems due to exposure to illnesses like HIV, cholera or malaria, she explains.
Speaking about the situation in Somalia, Dr Dimbil warns that children too might be at risk, as many are mal- and undernourished and thereby more susceptible to viral infections.
Measures are being taken in SOS Children’s Villages across Africa, Ms Bayessa says. They include a crisis management team that is guiding the preparation, response and mitigation efforts within SOS programmes and the community at large. Children, young people and mothers who live within the Children’s Villages learn how to properly wash their hands, and family houses are supplied with hand sanitizers, gloves and masks. A separate room has been made available in all locations to quarantine children and mothers who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Adequately addressing the outbreak will require particular focus on vulnerable families, including those with limited financial capacities, limited access to health facilities and lacking knowledge on prevention.
“It will require strengthened efforts from all sides to support families and children who are more vulnerable than other segments of society,” Ms Bayessa says.