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As Africa’s COVID-19 Lockdowns Ease, Officials Urged to Balance Health Policy


A volunteer for the grassroots charity Hope for Vrededorp reaches out to a woman with a container of home-cooked food, at a daily food distribution in the impoverished district of Vrededorp in Johannesburg, April 28, 2020.

Top African health officials say the continent has taken what appear to be effective measures in curbing the spread of coronavirus. While they note that lockdowns in some countries have had positive effects in slowing transmission, scientists say that the enduring economic and social harm of lockdowns could soon trump scientific considerations. Experts spoke to journalists a day before the continent’s hot spot, South Africa, prepared to ease its restrictions.

Health officials across the continent have mostly succeeded in urging leaders to implement strict measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. And it may be no coincidence that the sub-Saharan African region continues to have the world’s lowest caseload, and the fewest number of deaths.

But the crisis is far from over, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa.

FILE - Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa, attends a briefing for World Health Assembly delegates on the Ebola outbreak response in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Geneva, Switzerland, May 23, 2018.
FILE - Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization regional director for Africa, attends a briefing for World Health Assembly delegates on the Ebola outbreak response in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Geneva, Switzerland, May 23, 2018.

“In terms of the situation in Africa, we are continuing to see an increase in cases. I think our outbreak is continuing," she said. "We are seeing case fatality rate in the region of about 3.9 percent. We have a couple of countries that have a higher case fatality rate. What is very encouraging, and I'd just like to emphasize this, is that we have a number of countries that have reported zero cases over a couple of weeks." She said the "admittedly relatively small countries" of Namibia, Mauritania and Seychelles had put in place some early measures, "starting with testing, contact tracing, which have produced some results. And then we are very concerned about West Africa, where we are seeing community spread in a significant number of countries compared to others.”

FILE - South African Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize speaks during the handover of  emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, April 14, 2020.
FILE - South African Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize speaks during the handover of  emergency medical equipment for COVID-19 from China, at OR Tambo Johannesburg, South Africa, April 14, 2020.

In South Africa, the country with the continent’s highest caseload, Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize said the strict 35-day lockdown — which officially ends Friday — had made a difference.

“We are actually seeing a slightly different trajectory that has pushed the peak of the epidemic to around September, in the best-case scenario, or maybe July, in the worst-case scenario. This is going to be related to how we ease off the lockdown, so the president has called for a risk-adjusted easing of the lockdown to take into account food security issues, to take into account the economic recovery that needs to be supported,” he said.

Mkhize noted that the reopening will be slow and not drastically different from the current situation. The next lower stage will include a curfew, limits on outdoor exercise, and the obligatory use of face masks in public. Large gatherings remained banned, and many so-called nonessential businesses remain shuttered.

Professor Kojo Ansah Koram, an epidemiologist in Accra, Ghana, says it’s decisions like this that keep leaders up at night: How do they protect public health while also keeping other sectors of their country strong?

FILE - The crowd at the tiptoe lane, Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra, Ghana, is seen as the three-week-old partial lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, is lifted, April 20, 2020.
FILE - The crowd at the tiptoe lane, Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra, Ghana, is seen as the three-week-old partial lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, is lifted, April 20, 2020.

“If you are in a place like Accra," Koram said, "where there is a large majority of people in the informal sector, for example, then that advice has to be weighed on, or has to be taken in addition to what will happen to that population, which probably have to go out on a daily basis to get their daily bread. And so you can make your pure scientific advice, but you have to be aware that it has to be managed in the context of all the other things.”

As of Wednesday, Africa had about 23,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and just over 900 deaths, fewer than any other region in the world.

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