Sub-Saharan Africa recorded its first death on Wednesday at COVID-19, a high-ranking politician in Burkina Faso, while the head of the World Health Organization urged the continent to “prepare for the worst”.
“Africa should wake up,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Geneva, noting that “in other countries we have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain tipping point”.
Africa has lagged behind the global curve of coronavirus infections and deaths, but in recent days the number of cases has increased dramatically.
Experts have repeatedly warned of the dangers for the continent, given the weakness of its health infrastructure, poverty, conflict, poor sanitation and urban overcrowding.
Medical authorities in the poor Sahelian state of Burkina Faso announced on Wednesday that the number of infections there had increased from seven to 27 – and that one of them, a 62-year-old diabetic woman, died overnight .
The country’s main opposition party, the Union for Progress and Change (UPC), said in a statement that the victim was its deputy Rose-Marie Compaoré, first vice-president of the parliament.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy, has reported an increase of more than a third of cases, with 31 new infections bringing its toll to 116.
Neighboring Zambia has announced its first two confirmed cases – a couple who returned to the capital Lusaka after a 10-day vacation in France.
On Wednesday, a count of reported cases, compiled by AFP, amounted to more than 600 for the whole of Africa.
Of these, 16 cases have been fatal: six in Egypt, six in Algeria, two in Morocco, one in Sudan and one in Burkina Faso.
These figures are relatively low compared to the rest of the world – the number of deaths worldwide has exceeded 8,800, with nearly 210,000 infections in total.
WHO chief Tedros said sub-Saharan Africa had 233 infections, but warned that the official figures were unlikely to reflect the whole situation.
“We probably have undetected or unreported cases,” he said.
“We live day by day”
Looking from afar at the disaster in Asia and Europe, some African countries have wasted little time in ordering drastic measures.
Air traffic has been particularly affected, as many first cases in Africa have been detected in people who have returned from affected countries in Europe and the Middle East.
Some countries, such as Somalia, Chad, Guinea-Bissau and, more recently, the island of Madagascar have decided to stop all flights to their country.
On Wednesday, Cape Verde – a tropical archipelago off the west coast of Africa that is heavily dependent on tourism – and the continent’s most populous nation, Nigeria, joined others to ban flights from the countries most affected by the coronavirus.
Burkina Faso has ordered the closure of all schools and banned all public and private gatherings until the end of April.
On Wednesday, the unusually quiet streets of the capital Ouagadougou were concerned.
“It is disturbing to see what is going on with this virus, but we cannot barricade ourselves like developed countries. We lack everything here – we live day to day,” said bicycle salesman Boureima Baguian.
“We cannot, for example, close the big market. If that happens, it is not the coronavirus that will kill us but the misery and hunger.”
South Africa, the most affected country in sub-Saharan Africa, has banned cruise ships from its ports. More than 1,700 people are stranded on a liner off Cape Town, fearing that some will be infected with the virus.
This is only the last blow to tourism across the continent, fears linked to coronaviruses also canceling sporting, cultural and religious events.
Christian and Muslim leaders from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal have said they will suspend services to protect their followers.
“Belt of disease hot spots
A 2016 analysis by Rand Corporation, an American think tank, found that of the 25 countries in the world most vulnerable to infectious epidemics, 22 were in Africa – the others were Afghanistan, Yemen and Haiti.
The report identified a “disease hotspot belt” extending across the southern edge of the Sahara across the Sahel to the Horn of Africa, where many countries are struggling with conflict.
“If a communicable disease emerged in this chain of countries, it could easily spread across borders in all directions, encouraged by high overall vulnerability and a chain of weak national health systems along the way,” warns the report. .
Tedros recommended that mass gatherings be avoided, urging Africato “to cut him off from the egg, expecting the worst to happen.”
“The best advice for Africans to prepare for the worst and prepare for it today,” he said.