Coronavirus: Window closing fast’ to prevent virus overwhelming Africa

Time is running out to prevent coronavirus overwhelming health systems across Africa, warns Christian Aid. As coronavirus infections rise sharply across the continent, and with African countries lacking the specialist equipment or staff to cope with a pandemic, the international development agency is calling for the cancellation of debt repayments from African countries this year, so that money can be freed up and spent instead on saving lives.

There are now over 16,000 coronavirus cases in Africa, an increase of 27% over the previous week, with the number of deaths rising by 43% to over 740. However, with extremely low testing carried out across Africa so far, the true figure is feared to be even higher, with some warning the continent could see tens of thousands of cases in coming weeks.

As the poorest continent in the world, Africa is least equipped to provide the specialist care necessary to treat people infected with coronavirus. According to the World Health Organisation there are less than 2,000 ventilators and 5,000 intensive care unit beds across the Africa region. In addition, Africa has far fewer medical staff per head of population than would be needed to cope with a pandemic.

Africa also has to contend with high rates of underlying health issues and conditions that affect the immune system, which could leave many people particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. As well as malaria and the effects of poor nutrition, many countries also have high numbers of people living with HIV. In total, Africa faces nearly a quarter of the global burden of disease but only has access to 1% of the world’s financial resources for health.

Efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus require regular hand washing and physical distancing but this is more difficult to achieve in sub-Saharan Africa, when only 15% of people have soap and water facilities at home and many people living either in higher density areas or in cramped homes.

While the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise sharply, the economic fallout of the crisis has already hit many African countries. The UN has warned that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost, which for the two-thirds working hand to mouth through the informal economy were already precarious.

It has been estimated that $5 billion in additional funding is needed to cover the cost of critical supplies for hospitals, including tests, masks, gloves, and ventilators. African finance ministers have called for $100 billion to help them cope with the full extent of the coronavirus crisis.

Despite the urgent need for African countries to do all they can to bolster their health systems to cope with rising infections, money continues to be wasted on debt repayments. Currently 42 African countries spend more on debt payments than healthcare. Last week, G20 Finance Ministers agreed to only suspend debt repayments from the world’s poorest countries. 

Patrick Watt, Christian Aid’s Director of Policy, Public Affairs and Campaigns, said:

“Debt repayments falling due this year should be cancelled in full if we want African countries to have a fighting chance of limiting the spread of coronavirus, and surviving the hit to their economies. It is completely perverse that dozens of the world’s poorest countries are expected to pay debts to wealthy creditors in the midst of the biggest global health challenge in a generation, and the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. At this moment, cancelling the debt is a matter of life and death.”

Coronavirus cases have been reported in all 16 countries across Africa supported by Christian Aid. Working with local partners, Christian Aid is helping to prevent the spread of coronavirus by supporting efforts to raise awareness of the importance of regular hand washing and physical distancing as well as distributing soap and improving access to water.

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