Next Few Weeks Critical in Africa's COVID-19 Fight, Experts Say


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JOHANNESBURG - As cases rise and more countries order lockdowns, Africa's experience with the coronavirus depends on what happens over the next month, said the director of the continent's Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"And why is that so? Because we expect that by the third to fourth week from now, the virus will begin to seed into different communities, or sub-communities. For example, the most vulnerable populations in slums around capital cities, or even expand to remote areas. And then we'll begin to understand how severe this pandemic will be," Dr. John Nkengasong told journalists during a virtual press briefing on Thursday.

Lockdowns have been declared across the continent as cases mount, including in South Africa, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mauritius, and some cities in Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other countries have imposed travel restrictions and other regulations aimed at stopping the virus from spreading.

Dr. Meredith McMorrow, a medical officer in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Influenza Division, said what citizens do next is critical.

U.S. health officials are advising African governments on handling the pandemic, as cases soar over 180,000 in the United States amid the prospect that the nation could see 100,000 to 240,000 deaths over the next two months, despite social distancing.

McMorrow said experts urge people everywhere to do the same.

"This is the best thing that we can do to protect everyone," she said. "We have a limited amount of time to prevent widespread circulation of this virus in communities. And so, the best thing that we can all do right now is practice good hand hygiene, social distancing and take care of ourselves. I think that the challenges are obviously in areas where perhaps their resources are not great. Not every person can do that on this continent. And in those areas, then that's where governments step in and try and assist people that perhaps can't self-isolate."

The African region, which reported its first case in February, currently has just over 6,000 reported cases, Nkengasong said.

McMorrow said lags in testing probably mean there are many more cases than have been reported.

"It is likely that the currently reported laboratory confirmed case counts are a gross underestimate of the true burden of COVID-19 disease because of the issues that you've highlighted," she said. "Sometimes, as far as the actual burden, it's difficult to estimate because the symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to other viruses, and they're very nonspecific. It is somewhat reassuring that we haven't seen or heard of large increases in severe respiratory illness in this time."

Nkengasong noted that even as governments close ranks around their people, this fight is not restricted to one country or continent but the whole world, together. But, he said, keep a safe distance apart.