At the beginning of the year when we did our first post predicting stories that will make headlines in Africa in 2020, a pandemic of such a global magnitude as Covid-19, was nowhere in our imagination. Today, elections, politics, business, and even sporting news headlines across the globe seem to have all given way for Covid -19 related stories.

What we did not know at the time was that a pandemic was breaking out in China. Initially in the Central China Province of Huabei. The virus would later spread across the globe with more than 300,000 people infected and over 14,000 deaths by the time of publication of this article (get up to date data here).

By January 31st when we published our first story on Covid-19, there were only 130 deaths reported globally, all of them in China. There were only 5,974 cases out of which only 73 were outside China. Africa had by then reported no cases, but because of growing concerns, countries were starting to roll-out public information regarding the virus. The main concern at the time was the numerous flights between Africa and different Chinese cities due to the vibrancy of trade relations between Africa and China, which was by then the epicenter of the pandemic.

Where Africa stands

Today, more than 1,000 people have tested positive in 43 countries across the continent with the numbers expected to grow exponentially. Egypt is the most affected country in Africa, so far reporting a total of 327 cases and 14 deaths. South Africa has 274 cases, Burkina Faso 75, Cameroon 40, DRC and Nigeria 30 each.  Ghana 23, Rwanda 19, Kenya 15, Cote d’Ivoire 14, Tanzania 12, Ethiopia 11 and eSwatini 4. CAR, Congo Brazaville, Liberia, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are each reporting 3 cases.  Sudan, Angola, and Benin have reported two cases each, while Chad, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Uganda only have one case each.

In the wake of these new developments, several African countries have moved to take precautionary measures to contain the disease. These measures include the closing of schools, banning of social gatherings, and closure of airports to international traveling.

While Africa currently looks like the least Affected continent, the World Health Organization (WHO), is warning the continent’s leaders to prepare for the worst. WHO head, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says “the continent should learn from how the spread of the virus has sped up elsewhere.”

Africa should wake up, my continent should wake up…WHO’s recommendation is actually mass gatherings should be avoided and we should do all we can to cut it from the bud, expecting that the worst could happen.”

– Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Head.

While African countries have been trying to put in place measures to adhere to the WHO recommendations on social distancing, governments have been struggling to implement some of these measures, like religious events. This poses a great risk as the continent with a population of 1.2 billion could become the next epicenter of the scourge.

Lessons from Italy

When we did our first article on the Covid-19 outbreak (link at the top), China was still the epicenter of the pandemic. There were zero cases reported in Italy. Today, while China still leads in the number of reported cases at slightly over 81,000 cases, Italy is now the new epicenter of the scourge reporting over 59,000 cases, and over 5,000 deaths – over 2,000 more deaths than what has been reported in China.

These numbers should be of great concern to Africa and should influence policies aimed at containing the spread of the scourge. Italy, with a fairly developed health system, has its facilities currently overwhelmed, with more than 600 daily deaths being reported in the last few days.

Among, the measures currently being taken by Italy and other hard-hit countries like France, is to restrict people’s movements. While this is coming a little too late for the European countries, African governments still have time to put in place restrictions to ‘non-essential’ movements.

Exactly one month after the publication of our first coronavirus article, Italy had moved from zero to over 400 cases. By then, it still did not look like a big deal. An Italian politician reportedly even posted a photo of himself drinking in a bar with friends, urging Italians “not to change our habits.” Just ten days after, the number of infections had multiplied to almost 6,000 cases.

The Italian government has now sent in the army to enforce a lockdown in Lombardy, the northern region at the center of the outbreak, where bodies have piled up in churches. In other parts of the country, authorities are enforcing a countrywide lockdown, including closing parks and banning outdoor activities, including jogging too far from home.

The measures that Italy is currently putting in place would have saved thousands of lives if they were put in place a month ago. Back then, they were struggling to choose between restricting civil liberties, protecting the economy, and controling the pandemic. Today, the choice they should have made is very clear – controling the pandemic.

African governments don’t have to wait and have the experiences Italy had. China, where it all began, is currently reporting reduced new infections. This is because they enforced a complete lock-down early enough. These are lessons that African governments can draw from before things get out of hand. Reacting just a week later, with a struggling health system, the continent will be faced with a catastrophe’ beyond its capacity to manage.

It can’t be business as usual, the time to take decisive action in containing this scourge is now. It won’t be easy, but it must be done.