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COVID-19: Africa told to arrange for worst. what is the response?

From imposing travel bans to prohibiting mass gatherings and shutting down schools, governments across Africa are increasingly adopting sweeping measures in a very bid to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The emergency moves come amid a worrying rise within the number of infections registered in recent days across the continent after weeks of relatively few reported cases.

As of March 19, 33 African countries had reported over 600 cases and 17 deaths thanks to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. over 40 people have recovered.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian director-general of the planet Health Organization (WHO), said on Wednesday that the quantity of cases within the continent was likely higher and urged African countries to "wake up" to the increasing threat.

"The best advice for Africa is to arrange for the worst and prepare today," he said.

His warnings came as Nigeria, the continent's most populous country, barred entry to arrivals from 13 badly-hit countries. a bunch of other African countries have taken similar measures - especially in reference to travel from Europe, this epicentre of the pandemic - and enforced mandatory quarantine of passengers from affected regions.

'What about people who can't access water?'
First detected in China late last year, the new coronavirus has rapidly swept through the world, prompting the WHO earlier this month to declare the outbreak a deadly disease. The wide and rapid rise within the number of cased prompted countries round the world to shut borders, place citizens under lockdown and promote social distancing measures in a very bid to slow the spread of the virus.

While COVID-19 to date has no known treatment regiment, experts recommend a series of actions that may minimise the chance of infection, including the frequent and thorough washing of hands with soap and water.

Heeding the WHO's calls, the presidents of Senegal and Rwanda, Macky Sall and Paul Kagame, have taken part within the agency's #SafeHands social media campaign to indicate proper hand-washing practices. Other African leaders including African nationn President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Liberian counterpart, George Weah, have urged their citizens to avoid handshakes and use alternative greetings.

Almost from the onset of the health emergency, the WHO had warned of the chance that COVID-19 could spread to countries with weaker health systems, including in Sub-Saharan Africa, where poor sanitation facilities, the proliferation of informal economy and concrete crowding pose additional challenges within the efforts to combat the highly communicable disease.

"Sensitisation in rural and informal settings is insufficient," Kenyan epidemiologist Nelly Yatich said."Also, you're telling people to clean their hands, but what about those who haven't got access to water? How does one do social distancing in an off-the-cuff settlement?"

James, a resident of Kibera, an off-the-cuff settlement in Nairobi, described the challenging situation. "Many people are cramped together in small spaces," he said. "A lack of water is that the norm, so washing hands is another issue. Also, people here live hand-to-mouth, they need to travel to figure irrespective of what symptoms they're showing."

Schools shut, gatherings banned
Alongside the recently imposed travel bans, countries like Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania are among those to own closed educational facilities.

Most countries, including Botswana, Ghana and Ethiopia, have placed a ban on sporting events. Other nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Ghana have also banned gatherings at places of worship.

In Kenya, which has to date registered seven cases, the govt. has urged employers to facilitate work from home for his or her staff and called on people to create cashless transactions. Some parts of the country like Makueni County have suspended market days while authorities in Mombasa County have ordered nightclubs to stay shut for 30 days.

Yatich said 35 isolation centres are founded within the country but noted that they're inadequately equipped, leaving healthcare workers already lacking enough protective gear and training in danger.

A healthcare worker in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, who asked to stay anonymous, said she and her colleagues were fearful of contracting the virus, citing lack of water and sanitisers within the hospital she works at.

Long-standing challenges
In neighbouring Somalia, Minister of Health Fawziya Abikar Nur on Monday announced the country's first case, a Somali national who had returned from China.

The news heightened concerns over Somalia's ability to deal with a possible outbreak.

"Three decades of conflict, ongoing security challenges and under-resourced public health programmes implies that managing a crisis of the dimensions of the COVID19 pandemic could leave this emerging yet fragile state crippled," Hodan Ali, a Mogadishu-based family registered nurse, said.

But even in countries with no confirmed cases, like Zimbabwe, concerns linger. the govt. in Harare on Tuesday declared a "national crisis" over COVID-19, but some local residents complained about the authorities' response amid long-standing grievances over a deepening depression and lack of basic services.

"Some businesses are encouraging people to figure from home but we've 18-hour power cuts here," said Mishek Chirwa, an IT consultant in Zimbabwe's capital. "The government has didn't do enough. We even have a water crisis, of these present multiple challenges."

Meanwhile, the increase within the number of coronavirus cases appears to travel hand-in-hand with a surge in myths and misinformation surrounding it, complicating even further the efforts to contain the crisis. In Kenya, authorities on arrested 10 people at a medical spa that allegedly advertised "fake" coronavirus testing kits.

Cautious optimism
Still, experts expressed confidence that the teachings learned from previous health emergencies, including the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016 that killed over 11,000 people in geographical area, will help within the fight against the new coronavirus.

"Ebola could also be different to COVID-19, however, the continent has experience," a source at the Congolese Ministry of Health said. "Welearned about the importance of prevention, the requirement to mitigate false information."

Ugandan physician Sabrina Kitaka agreed. "Uganda has managed Ebola and Marburg, so we've trust in our systems," she said.

Ngozi Erondu, associate fellow of the world Health Programme at Chatham House, also singled out as positive developments the establishment of institutions like the Africa Centre for Disease Control and a rise within the continent's laboratory capacity - in keeping with her, a minimum of 20 countries have COVID-19 testing facilities.

"Prevention of an oversized outbreak rests on containment of imported cases and trying to prevent community transmission," Erondu said.

Chikwe Ihekweazu, director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said Nigeria has strengthened its surveillance detection and response capacity, adding that "as the epidemiology of the disease is changing rapidly, so is our response."

"One of the strongest improvements we've seen compared to the Ebola outbreak in geographical area in 2014, is that the coordination and support from WHO AFRO, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and also the West African Health Organizations," he added.

In Senegal, meanwhile, one amongst the few sub-Saharan African countries to own registered local transmission, professor Moussa Seydi, head of the infectious diseases department at Fann Hospital, expressed hope that a mixture of laboratory capacity, government directives and also the population adhering to guidelines would end in the country having the ability to accommodate the virus.

'We'll get through this'
Still, worries starting from the flexibility of strained healthcare systems to handle a severe outbreak to challenges over childcare during school closures, also because the effect of the restrictions on those within the informal economy and also the consequences of the pandemic on economies across the continent, play on people's mind.

Against all this, the drastic measures announced in recent days prompted scenes of panic-buying in some countries on the continent, the same as what happened in many other parts of the planet.

"We have seen people frantically purchasing items," said Rose Arunga, a supervisor at a Nairobi supermarket. "Authorities took action against one supermarket which increased prices of sanitisers."

In the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, architect Tagreed Abdin said the new coronavirus is what "everyone is talking about".

"While some pharmacies are hiking up prices of masks and sanitiser, there have also been heart-warming stories about some distributing these at no cost," he added.

However, in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, one amongst the three countries ravaged by Ebola some five years ago, store owner Joshua Sneh said things were much calmer.

"We'll get through this," he said.