Lack of testing raises fears that pandemic epicentre is moving to Africa

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As the daily number of new COVID-19 infections appears to be falling in parts of the world, some fear the epicentre of the virus could move to the African continent. BBC News reports that despite efforts to lock down cities and countries, despite donations of protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators from China, one thing is clear: Africa has not yet flattened the curve and the room for manoeuvre is getting smaller.

“What we are seeing is that this opportunity is no longer there or almost not there for some countries,” says Dr Michel Yao, who runs the emergency response programme for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Africa.

The report says nearly every African country has reported cases, and while most began with patients bringing the virus in through international travel, it is now spreading within communities. Different variables make predictions difficult, but the worst-case scenarios are still jarring. “Cases can easily pick up,” Yao says, “even triple, maybe multiply by seven to 10 from what we have right now”. In South Africa, the last two weeks of March saw a 20-fold increase in the number of confirmed cases.

What is significant is the rise in testing capabilities in South Africa. The country has so far conducted around 60,000 tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and is now testing at a rate of nearly 5,000 a day, according to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. But compared to other countries in the grip of the virus, that amount is still woefully inadequate. And, the report says, testing numbers are even more worrying across the rest of Africa.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of tests but I think we could do much more,” argues Dr Abdhallah Ziraba, a research scientist and epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Centre. The more tests that can be conducted, the more confident the continent can be in its data and the systems it has in place to fight the rising tide. “If we can test and have a more localised strategic approach to restricting movement that would really help resources,” says Dr Ngozi Erondu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Chatham House think-tank.

The report says ultimately, it will be the efforts and resources deployed by African countries themselves that determine the course of the outbreak.

Lack of coordination between South Africa’s government departments, and failure to inform residents and the police, is undermining bold government efforts to roll out COVID-19 coronavirus mass screenings, testings, tracing and tracking programmes. City Press reports that compounding the frustration are the health, police and defence ministries not being on the same wavelength.

SA Police Service (SAPS) and SA National Defence Force (SANDF) officers enforcing the lockdown were turning back residents attempting to get screened and, if possible, tested for the virus, unaware that they were doing so in accordance with instructions from the health department.

The report says for those who managed to navigate their way past the obstacles, some faced more frustrations as some testing stations failed to open their doors. At those stations that did, there were lengthy delays.

The report says these mass programmes were put into place after last week’s pledge by the COVID-19 ministerial national command team, which made “sweeping declarations, including a proposed roll-out of mass screening, testing and tracing measures that would lead to a drastic increase in the number of people who would be tested daily, from a measly 2 000 a day to more than 50,000.”

Full City Press report Full BBC News report

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