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COVID19

How Africa Can Use Lessons From Fighting Ebola To Defeat COVID-19

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As countries step up efforts to defeat COVID-19, Senegal is getting commendation from all over the world. The West African nation is currently the African country with the highest recovery rate. It has a recovery rate of almost 61% and only two deaths reported in the past one and a half months. This is a huge feat considering that many developed nations are recording huge deaths from the virus. However, the recurring Ebola outbreaks in the region may have prepared the country for similar outbreaks. 

The country has stored up a wealth of experience from dealing with the deadly Ebola virus. Therefore, it is about time the rest of Africa look inward to find ways to defeat COVID-19. Bats, porcupines, antelopes, and monkeys serve as a vehicle for Ebola virus transmission. According to a BBC article,

“The disease infects humans through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, fruit bats, and forest antelope. It then spreads between humans by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments.”

Similar measures like social distancing that was used to curtail Ebola spread are now deployed to defeat COVID-19. Back then, there was a modification of burial customs. Similar measures are now adopted for the burial of dead COVID-19 patients.

Not all African Countries learned from history

Communalism is an intrinsic part of Africa’s culture. Any attempt to change this is often met with huge criticism. Disobedience to communal practices like burial customs can attract stiff punishment. Hence, this is making it more difficult to enforce social distancing which is crucial in the fight to defeat COVID-19. Highlighting some of these practices, the previously quoted BBC article said, 

Hugging is a normal part of religious worship in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Across the region the ritual preparation of bodies for burial involves washing, touching, and kissing. Those with the highest status in society are often charged with washing and preparing the body. For a woman, this can include braiding the hair, and for a man shaving the head.”

The late Nigerian President Buhari’s chief of staff Abba Kyari is buried in Abuja, April 18, 2020. Photo/Premium Times NG

However, during the Ebola outbreak, health officials were able to break some of those practices. The ensuing stringent measures were a hard pill to swallow but helped in getting rid of Ebola. Some of those measures are now used to defeat COVID-19. According to the World Bank, ‘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.

Not all African countries affected by Ebola learned from the experience. For example, the Nigerian government was harshly criticized at the ill-handling of the burial of the late Chief of Staff to the president. Experts are also kicking against the premature easing of lockdown measures in the country. 

Implementing lessons from Ebola outbreak to defeat COVID-19

from contact tracing to communication, the Ebola outbreak came with lots of lessons that should have given African countries an edge in the fight to defeat COVID-19. Perhaps, the lessons were not clear enough. Here is a recap of lessons from Ebola and how they can help Africa to defeat COVID-19 pandemic. 

1. Transparent communication can help in flattening the curve

Being as open as possible with information as it rolls out is an effective way to manage a pandemic. This helps in curbing the spread of misinformation which can create panic. It helps to make sure that everyone is on board. For instance, information about testing and contact tracing should not be kept secret. People will likely respond better to guidelines from government and health officials if there is trust. 

For example, during the Ebola outbreak, it was believed that it was brought by foreigners. This led to xenophobic attacks. Also, the misunderstanding prevented health workers from doing their job. Another misinformation was that health workers were looking for sick people to kill them. However, swift and transparent communication led to the reversal of this trend. A similar setback is hindering the fight to defeat COVID-19. 

The media has a significant role to play in this. During the Ebola outbreak, jingles on preventive measures was always on air. Currently, many countries in the continent are doing well in this regard. Daily national briefings and updates have become the norm. The major hurdle now is the interpretation of the information in the right way. Perhaps, governments across Africa should consider translating this information into local languages to maintain the integrity of the message. This can help to quell the growing protests against some government regulations.

2. Swift testing of the population

Lack of testing kits has been a significant drawback to health systems in Africa. Africa benefitted from donations from the Jack Ma Foundation. However, as cases continue to rise, Africa needs more testing kits and protective gear. Rapid testing helps in the identification and isolation of the infected to curb the spread. Also, having reliable data helps health officials in planning response strategies.

Widespread testing is crucial in the fight to defeat COVID-19 / Quartz Africa

Adequate testing helps the government to map out virus hotspots. Consequently, the public can be advised to avoid such areas. During the Ebola outbreak, rapid contact tracing helped to curb the spread. Also, the response from WHO and the international aid community helped in the development of rapid testing kits. Rapid test kits are effective in resource-poor environments. Most of the COVID-19 testing kits are expensive. However, Senegal has developed a rapid test kit that costs just $1.

3. Rapid response and future planning

In the fight to defeat COVID-19, a rapid response can save lives. In the Ebola case, the affected countries moved quickly to effect measures that helped in mitigating the epidemic. For example, MSD Africa, which had created the first approved Ebola vaccine deployed it in DRC Congo within 1 week of the 2018 outbreak announcement. According to Dr. Priya Agrawal who works with the company, there are currently 300,000 doses of the vaccine in the nation, saving lives.

Governments should fast-track contact tracing. Like Senegal, other African countries should see the need to invest in scientific research.  The steps taken by Senegal including developing its own low-cost test kits has led to high recoveries. The best time to prepare for the next pandemic is now. African countries should learn to be proactive rather than reactive. 

4. Inter-border and international collaboration

After Ebola ravaged West Africa (2014-2016), the World Bank invested 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.” 

This has gone a long way in helping the individual countries improve on areas such as establishing early warning systems for infectious disease trends prediction, strengthening laboratory capacity for the diagnosis of infectious human and animal diseases, and much more. Currently, since there are limited funding opportunities, it is better to have coordinated efforts. Countries should be willing to share treatment data as well as research efforts in vaccine development. We can defeat COVID-19 if we adhere to the safety guidelines set by WHO. Comfort yourself with the fact that this is only temporary measures.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb

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