WASHINGTON, April 3, 2020 – COVID-19 (coronavirus) has arrived in Sub-Saharan Africa, and governments have stepped up measures to prevent the spread of this pandemic. Over the past weeks, travelers have been screened with thermal cameras and health agents have been deployed to increase surveillance, and countries have acted swiftly to cut down flights, close schools and borders, and limit public gatherings. For many African countries that learned difficult lessons from the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, including the Democratic Republic of Congo which now sees an end in sight in the fight against Ebola, these are familiar scenes.
Swift detection, early testing and rapid response require cross-border collaboration and strong solidarity among neighboring countries and with the international community to combat the spread of infectious diseases. The response to the 2014 Ebola crisis taught African countries what it takes to invest in more resilient health systems and more effective surveillance mechanisms to cope with epidemics. A strong response to COVID-19 will require building on these lessons together.
Health experts in Nigeria and Senegal shared their views on what is being done to curb the spread of the pandemic on the continent and to prepare for its impacts:
Surveillance and screening key to contain the spread
In the aftermath of the West Africa Ebola crisis, the World Bank leveraged more than $600 million to launch the Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement (REDISSE) Project to strengthen health systems and support effective disease surveillance 16 West and Central African countries.
The Institut Pasteur in Dakar was one of the first laboratories on the continent to be accredited by the World Health Organization for testing of COVID-19. The team of the institute started preparing in January as the laboratory is used to handle similar disease outbreaks.
“WHO assigned us this regional role. Since then, we trained 25 laboratories and another institute in South Africa trained about 18 more. We have now more than 30 laboratories in the region with the capacity to test for coronavirus,” said Dr. Amadou Alpha Sall, Director General at the Institut Pasteur.
Under the REDISSE program, the Institut Pasteur was able to strengthen its surveillance system by procuring more laboratory equipment for testing including bio security equipment to increase its capacity to run more tests and guarantee safety and quality protocols for running these tests.
“We were able to enhance surveillance systems for all kind of diseases across Senegal. The equipment provided will allow us to rapidly detect and improve our capacity to mobilize resources and respond to disease outbreaks like coronavirus,” added Dr. Alpha Sall.
Working as one to prepare and respond
For Dr. John Oladejo, Director for Health Emergency Preparedness and Response at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), coordination among all partners in countries and across boundaries is essential to prevent the spread of an outbreak. Since 2017, the World Bank has provided support to the NCDC to strengthen the country’s capacity to prevent, rapidly detect, prepare and respond to disease outbreaks.
“When the COVID-19 virus was announced, we started a technical working group for preparedness. We had all partners involved and started preparing, looking at infrastructure, schedules of drugs, points of entries where suspected cases would most likely be coming from. Immediately, we had the first suspected case in February, we quickly started the Emergency Operations Centre. We finalized our Incident Action Plan and followed it strictly to ensure we didn’t leave any stone unturned. The World Bank, UNICEF, WHO and the NCDC all worked as one to pull this off,” said Dr. Oladejo.
Together with other regional partners, the World Bank is helping countries take the necessary steps in response to this global threat. Last week, a $14 billion package of fast-track financing was approved to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.
“Africa learned ‘what it takes’ the hard way during the Ebola crisis,” said Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice-President for Africa. “As COVID-19 continues to evolve, we are using all existing instruments and expertise to respond to countries’ needs while prioritizing the poorest and most vulnerable people.”