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The Optimist

COVID-19 Valerie Nkamgang Bemo

The African Footprint: How the continent's preparedness impacts the rest of the world

In response to COVID-19 outbreak, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will provide up to $100 million to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts; protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia; and accelerate the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. We sat down with Valerie Bemo, Deputy Director for Emergency Response at the Gates Foundation, to discuss the importance of supporting COVID19 preparedness in sub-Saharan Africa and how governments across the continent are already investing in their response.

Q: The COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan, China. So why was the foundation so quick to fund response efforts in Africa?

A: There are a few reasons. First, we know from experience – such as the H1N1 outbreak of 2009 – that pandemics disproportionately affect people living in the world’s poorest places, and Africa and South Asia together account for 85% of the world’s people living in extreme poverty.

Pandemics can also quickly overload the health systems in Africa and Asia because they have more limited capacity there. When that happens, access to essential services – like attended childbirths for pregnant women and routine immunizations for infants and toddlers – can break down. The result is that more people die from secondary causes than from deaths caused by the pandemic itself. 

So, if we can help African and South Asian countries improve their capacity to detect COVID-19 and respond effectively to a sudden surge in cases, healthcare services can avoid being swamped. And we can save thousands of lives. 

One more thing it’s important to point out: Africa and China have strong economic connections, and hundreds of flights connect them every day. While the global economy can deliver tremendous benefits, it can also accelerate the speed and spread of novel pathogens like COVID-19. So, we knew we only had a matter of weeks to help African public health agencies prepare. 

Q:  In terms of readiness, what have African health agencies been able to achieve in the last few weeks?

A lot. 

A month or so ago, if a suspected case of COVID-19 had shown up in sub-Saharan Africa, only two countries would have had the ability to diagnose it – Senegal and South Africa because they have well-equipped regional labs in Dakar and Pretoria. But that’s changed since the end of January. 

From February 5-7, surveillance teams from 15 different African countries were trained by Institut Pasteur of Dakar with support of the Africa CDC and AFENET on how to perform molecular diagnosis of COVID-19 infection using PCR analysis. A week later, teams from an additional 20 countries were trained on molecular diagnosis in South Africa. All of these teams have been supplied with COVID-19 assays produced in Germany.

This means that dozens of African countries now have the capacity to confirm COVID-19 diagnosis rather than having to ship their samples elsewhere. 

Having this surveillance will help many countries slow the onset of COVID-19, and it will also help national leaders make informed decisions about when to implement social distancing policies and other pandemic response measures.

Q: What else can African countries do to prepare? 

We are helping African public health authorities work with peers from China and elsewhere to understand the clinical symptoms most associated with COVID-19; how best to prepare facilities to accommodate the treatment and isolation of patients; and how to set up protocols for treatment for contact tracing and infection control.

Q: Do you think leaders in Africa are taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously?

Yes, they are. On February 22, the African Union held an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa with all ministries of health to discuss COVID-19 and make sure that governments across the continent are investing the time and energy to be prepared.

Countries are also going through live simulations to make sure they are ready, not just for coronavirus but for any other outbreak.  

About the Interviewee

Valerie Bemo
Valerie Nkamgang Bemo manages the foundation’s investments that support communities affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies.

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