Africa has registered a 43% jump in reported COVID-19 cases in the last week, highlighting a warning from the World Health Organization that the continent of 1.3 billion could become the next epicenter of the global outbreak.
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in his weekly briefing Thursday that Africa also has a “very, very limited” and “very, very strained” testing capacity.
He said that means the surge in infections is likely to be even higher. WHO’s recent report painted a grim picture for Africa. It warned the virus could kill more than 300,000 people and push 30 million into desperate poverty. Nkengasong said Africa still has time to avert such a disaster but testing people and tracing virus cases is critical.
As the continent braces for a surge in coronavirus cases, its countries are dangerously behind in the global race for scarce medical equipment. Ten nations have no ventilators at all.
Outbid by richer countries, and not receiving medical gear from top aid donor the United States, African officials scramble for solutions as virus cases climb past 25,000. Even in the best scenario, the United Nations says 74 million test kits and 30,000 ventilators will be needed by the continent's 1.3 billion people this year. Very few are in hand.
“We are competing with the developed world,” Nkengasong said. “The very future of the continent will depend on how this matter is handled.”
Politicians instinctively try to protect their own people and “we know that sometimes the worst in human behavior comes out,” said Simon Missiri, Africa director with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, urging an equitable approach to help developing nations.
The crisis has jolted African nations into creating a pooled purchasing platform under the African Union (AU) to improve negotiating power. Within days of its formation, the AU landed more than 100,000 test kits from a German source. The World Health Organization (WHO) is pitching in, approaching manufacturers for supplies.
Africa also benefits from the U.N.'s largest emergency humanitarian operation in decades, with medical cargo including hundreds of ventilators arriving in Ethiopia this month and sent to all countries across the continent. Another shipment from the Jack Ma Foundation is on the way.
But Africa isn't holding out a begging bowl, Nkengasong said. Instead, it's asking for a fair crack at markets – and approaching China for "not donations. Quotas that Africa as a continent can purchase.”
Such efforts are a response to a global thicket of protectionism: More than 70 countries have restricted exports of medical items, putting Africa in a “perilous position,” the U.N. says. New travel bans have closed borders and airports, badly wrenching supply chains.
The World Food Programme (WFP)) seeks $350 million to keep the operation running for Africa and elsewhere, delivering aid for the pandemic and other crises like HIV and cholera that need drugs and vaccines to keep flowing. Africa imports as much as 94% of its pharmaceuticals, the U.N. says.
“I’ve never been involved in anything like this before. I don’t think any of us have,” said Stephen Cahill, WFP’s director of logistics. “We’re seeing countries taking measures we think aren’t always rational. When you start closing borders, we start to get very nervous.”
Some African nations, after securing medical equipment, have complicated delivery by causing cargo to stall at ports; 43 have closed their borders.
The global supply crisis is so pressing that the U.N. General Assembly this week approved a resolution urging countries to immediately end “speculation and undue stockpiling." Separately, China said it won't restrict exports of needed medical goods.
Developing regions are taking different approaches. China is the main source of help in Southeast Asia. In South Asia, several countries have committed to India's proposed COVID-19 Emergency Fund. Small South Pacific island nations have teamed up to get equipment. And some Latin American nations are trying to free equipment stuck in U.S. ports or making supplies themselves.
But the global disruptions are especially felt across Africa, where governments that have historically underfunded health systems are partnering in an effort that's been compared to going to war.
“Where a product cost, for example, a dollar before, it's now gone up a hundredfold,” said the Africa CDC deputy director, Ahmed Ogwell. While many African nations have money on hand, the trading companies they use face extreme challenges: Country X can go and say, ‘I’ll pay you double what you're offered.'"