WHO pledges coronavirus support as African health ministers meet to plan response

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it would support the efforts of vulnerable African nations to prepare for a possible outbreak of coronavirus on the continent.

WHO pledged in a statement Saturday that it would support African Union Member States on a common preparedness and response strategy for COVID-19.

A group of African health ministers held an emergency meeting about the disease in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Twitter Sunday that “only together, in solidarity” can it keep the people of Africa safe. 

WHO conducted a survey of nations to assess overall readiness for COVID-19 and found the regional readiness level in Africa was an estimated 66 per cent.

Officials from the organization have warned throughout the viral outbreak that countries with less developed health systems could be overwhelmed and insufficiently prepared to contain the disease on home soil.

Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, speaks to media about Ebola operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Geneva, Feb. 1, 2019. Moeti warned Saturday there are ‘critical gaps in readiness’ for a possible coronavirus outbreak in Africa, where so far there is just one confirmed case in Egypt. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said there are “critical gaps in readiness for countries across the continent.”

“We need urgently to prioritize strengthening the capacities for countries to investigate alerts, treat patients in isolation facilities and improve infection, prevention and control in health facilities and in communities.”

So far just one case is confirmed on the African continent, in Egypt. 

Egypt Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Mugahed said the person was a “foreigner” who is carrying the coronavirus but not showing any serious symptoms.

China has reported a total of 77,042 cases of the disease caused by the virus, including 2,445 deaths. Outside mainland China, there have been more than 1,700 cases in 28 countries, the WHO said

Few resources to bring citizens home

Countries across the world have flown their nationals home from China’s quarantined Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak that since January.

But no sub-Saharan African country has done so, leaving thousands stranded.

Governments across Africa have said they plan to send money to students to help with expenses. Cameroon said it was sending about $82,000 to help its citizens stuck in Hubei.

However, many including Senegal and Uganda, say they do not have the resources to look after coronavirus patients at home and their nationals would be safer in China where authorities have reported a dramatic drop in new cases in Hubei in recent days.

Margaret Ntale Namusisi holds a family album at her home in Mukono district, Uganda, during an interview Feb. 18 about her three daughters, who are quarantined in Wuhan because of the outbreak. Namusisi wants Uganda to bring her daughters home. (Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters)

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention last week called on governments to bring Africans home. But this has provided little comfort for those stranded in China or their families back home who have received little or no communication from their governments.

Uganda mother Margaret Ntale Namusisi’s three daughters are being quarantined at their university in Wuhan.

But nearly one month on, with no help from their government, they are now under lockdown in a crowded apartment with orders to stay indoors with the windows closed. Food, funds and morale are running low.

‘Has Uganda given up on us?’

“They are traumatized,” said Namusisi, who wakes up at 3 a.m. every day to talk to her daughters over the Chinese messaging service WeChat. “They ask, has Uganda given up on us?”

“We’ve gone to parliament, we’ve gone to the ministry of health, we’ve gone to the ministry of foreign affairs and taken them our petition to bring back our children,” said Namusisi

Roger-Michel Kemkuining, a Cameroonian, found out that his son Pavel had contracted coronavirus from a statement posted online by Yangzte University, where Pavel was studying.

The statement, seen by Reuters, said the university had informed the Cameroonian embassy and the parents, but that was news to Kemkuining.

Cameroon’s health ministry spokesman, Clavere Nken, confirmed that the family had found out via social media. He said he had since spoken to them by phone. Yangzte University did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pavel is the only known African to test positive for coronavirus. He has recovered and was released from hospital on Feb. 10 but remains in isolation, he told Reuters.

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