Uganda is a nearly landlocked oasis in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak that is engulfing the continent: Four of its five neighbors have joined an ever-increasing list approaching 190 nations with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Earlier this week in a televised address, President Yoweri Museveni gave the marching orders to his citizens, detailing how he plans to fight the viral predator. He has suspended schools and churches, postponed wedding ceremonies and burial rituals, and stopped the merry-making at bars, discos, cinemas and concerts.
Uganda is on lockdown over the next month.
Citizens are not allowed to travel to any of the 16 labeled category-one countries, which include China, Germany, Italy, Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and United States. Ugandans who seek re-entry from a country on the list will be placed under a mandatory two-week quarantine at their own expense. International visitors are free to leave but cannot enter during this period.
Africa still has 13 countries with no confirmed COVID-19 cases. And government officials and medical experts on the continent are waging a battle for containment.
Reasons for Resistance
Relatively, the number of infections have been low and the spread of the virus has been slow, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa.
“We don’t have an explanation,” Dr. Moeti, said during a virtual news conference on Thursday as she fielded questions from journalists who were wondering why.
Is it related to the climate or temperature?
“Our initial thinking was that it was related to influenza season,” Dr. Moeti said, noting that if weather was a factor then the southern region could see a spike in the very near future.
Could it be the predominance of Africa's youth?
It would seem that the world’s youngest population would be immune to a disease that has taken a greater toll on the elderly. However, the youth could be vulnerable, Dr. Moeti pointed out, because some segments of the continent have a higher prevalence of AIDS and malaria.
Has Africa learned from previous outbreaks?
“Our experience with severe widespread outbreaks is an asset,” Dr. Moeti said. “Some of the work we have been doing has been based on the platform established in response to the Ebola outbreak and the preparedness that was in place.”
How did China break the chain of transmission?
Early on, there were concerns that the occurrences would be more catastrophic since the virus originated in China, which is Africa’s key economic partner. However, the first cases were imported from Europe, Dr. Moeti said, explaining that China had reduced risks by initiating 14-day quarantines and other preventative measures to address the potential spread.
Robust in Response
Where the panel of experts seemed to find more certainty is how preparedness is impeding the spread of COVID-19 in many African nations.
“At the beginning of February, we had only two laboratories that were capable of diagnosing this viruses, one in South Africa and one in Senegal,” said Dr. Moeti. “Now we have 40 countries with the capacity.”
More than 200,000 testing kits have been supplied to the 47 nations in the region, said Dr. Michel Yao, WHO’s Emergency Operations Programme Manager in Africa. “This is roughly what we had to start with, and now after one month countries are requesting replenishment.”
In South Africa, where the president recently declared a national disaster, the government reached out to the private sector to provide more testing kits, said Dr. Owen Kaluwa, the WHO representative there. “A number of measures were put in place to aggressively address containment and mitigation.”
While it is difficult to measure the infection rate, because people can be asymptomatic, Dr. Moeti said she didn't believe there were large numbers of Africans who were undetected. “Over the last three months we have not seen people manifesting this illness in countries,” she said. “We have not seen clusters of cases that might be suggestive of what had been been previously undiagnosed infections that are now resulting in serious illness.”
Dr. Zabulon Yoti, an adviser for Outbreak and Disaster at WHO-Africa, described the detection system in the region as robust.
“Indeed there are countries that have not reported cases,” said Dr. Yoti. “What you are seeing is that they’re applying the full measure of trying to find that case.”
The cases are being investigated and tested, and the tests are negative, Dr. Yoti said. “These are the same systems being used in the countries where there are reported cases. If the cases were there, they would be [detected].”
At the Coronavirus Resource Center, experts at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University and Medicine are keeping up with the latest numbers with its COVID-19 Global Case Tracker.
Globally, the number of cases has surpassed the 300,000 mark, and there are 12,966 deaths.
According to the tracker, there have been more than 1,100 case confirmed on the continent. Egypt, the site of the first confirmed case, is still leading in infections with 294. South Africa ranks second in confirmed cases with 240. Rounding out the top-five of infected nations are Algeria with 139, Morocco with 96, and Burkina Faso with 64.
There are seven countries with just one confirmed case: Chad, Eritrea, Djibouti, the Gambia, Niger, Somalia and Swaziland.
In addition to Uganda, there are still 12 nations that have no confirmed cases: Botswana, Burundi, Comoros, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Libya, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.
Many nations have banned public gatherings, closed schools, cancelled flights and closed their borders.
Government officials should respond aggressively and expeditiously to keep their citizens safe, Dr. Moeti advised, without offering specifics about what nations should do.
“At WHO, we encourage strong precautionary measures to contain the outbreak,” she said. “It is wise to put these measures in place sooner rather than later.”