African countries need to increase investments in scientific research and medical infrastructure, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
African countries need to increase investments in scientific research and medical infrastructure, says the writer. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Lessons for Africa: 5 key interventions made by China in combating Covid-19

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 6, 2020

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Usually the rest of the world prepares for the spread of infectious diseases emanating from Africa. This time the situation is reversed.

Africa is having to learn from the experiences of China and other countries on how to contain the new virus plaguing the globe.

China has been lauded by the World Health Organization for its fast and efficient measures taken to combat the spread of the virus.

Months after the initial outbreak, Africa is able to glean important lessons from China's experience in managing the crisis, and has had the luxury of forewarning about what lies ahead, and how it needs to swiftly prepare.

We have identified five key interventions made by China in combating Covid-19 and which African countries can learn from.

China’s rapid response in curbing the spread of the virus is unprecedented in medical history, and has resulted in it successfully flattening the curve relatively quickly when compared to the trajectory in other European countries and the US.

By imposing strict controls in the first 50 days of the outbreak, China retarded its spread and saved an estimated 700 000 lives in Wuhan.

By banning public gatherings, closing entertainment venues, suspending public transport, and confining people to their apartment buildings, China managed to break the chain of transmission. Ultimately the Chinese government had restricted the movement of 760 million of its citizens.

China led the world in developing a hi-tech system of rapidly identifying those infected, and Africa can learn lessons from China’s methods.

Its system of tracking and tracing contacts and isolating people in quarantine centres saved countless lives. Very early on, officials deployed health agents at entry and exit points and tested people with thermal cameras.

It was not necessarily a flawless process by any means, as those with suspected symptoms, who had not yet been tested, were forcibly put into quarantine centres with hundreds of others, many of whom might have been infected. This would have been a nightmare scenario for those who had not initially contracted the virus, but the Chinese government had decided to take extreme measures.

Africa has had the benefit of time to observe what China accomplished and also the dramatic events that transpired in Italy, Spain and the UK as the pandemic spiralled out of control.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons for Africa from what happened in China, was how Covid-19 overwhelmed the health system in Hubei, and in Wuhan the death rate ended up being three or four times that in the rest of the country.

China had the capacity to rapidly build massive hospitals and quarantine centres with thousands of beds within 10 days, but even then its health system was stretched to breaking point.

Doctors and nurses in Hubei have suffered severe post-traumatic stress from what they endured with patients dying all around them, and will probably never be the same again.

Those brave enough to relay their stories talk of horrific scenes of patients lying on hospital floors gasping for breath and begging for help from doctors who were overwhelmed, and at times helpless.

Africa must be cognisant of what really happened and avoid such tragic scenes by reallocating resources to prepare health systems for mass infections. Given the financial constraints of many African governments, they need to forge partnerships with the relevant UN agencies and donors in order to organise stimulus packages and loans in order to build the necessary medical infrastructure and procure personal protective equipment while there is still time.

Africa needs to learn from the way in which China leveraged big data and information technology in the battle against Covid-19. Africa has the youngest population on the globe with a median age of 18, compared to the median age in Europe which is 41. This surging young population on the continent has high mobile penetration, with countries like Kenya having a mobile penetration rate of 105%. African governments need to use phone data to assist in tracking and tracing infections, as has been done in a number of Asian countries.

But one caveat is to guard against the use of big data to use surveillance of citizens in an effort to curtail their rights and freedoms. Africa does not want to promote the model of a police state which watches its citizens’ every move, and this is one of the inherent dangers associated with using technology to identify people and their health statuses. Facial recognition may assist in curbing the spread of the virus, but it could also be manipulated later to infringe on the privacy and rights of citizens.

China was able to capitalise on its advanced medical infrastructure and scientific research abilities to swiftly fight the virus on a number of levels.

African countries may have a harder time in doing so, hence the need to increase investments in scientific research and medical infrastructure. Africa is making great strides in medical science, but much more needs to be done. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar have been leading the way, working with a biotechnology lab in the UK to produce a cheap rapid diagnostic test for Covid-19 which is made in Senegal.

Great success has been achieved as the test has reduced diagnosis time from four hours to 10 minutes. The Pasteur Institute is one of the first labs in Africa to have been accredited by the WHO for Covid-19 testing, and has trained 25 other labs. South Africa also has advanced labs which have trained 18 more.

This needs to be a new priority on the continent as we move forward.

* Shannon Ebrahim is the group foreign editor for Independent Media.

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