Africa should “prepare for the worst” as the coronavirus begins to spread locally, the World Health Organization’s director-general said Wednesday, while South Africa became the continent’s new focus of concern as cases nearly doubled to 116 from two days before.
South Africa’s health minister, Zweli Mkhize, this week called that kind of rate “explosive” in the country with the most cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Fourteen of the latest cases were from local transmission — and six were in children under 10.
Though the pandemic is in its early days on the continent, health experts have warned that even facilities in Africa’s richest nation could be overwhelmed by the virus’ spread.
“I think Africa should wake up. My continent should wake up,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who comes from Ethiopia.
Crowded conditions in poor areas could lead to even faster transmission, experts say. Tens of thousands of people throughout the continent pack into commuter trains, buses, and minivan taxis to head to work or run errands everyday.
These packed modes of transportation are the only means of getting to their jobs.
“We have low-income workers who cannot afford to self-isolate or take time off work,” said public health expert Dr. Atiya Mosam, who also worried about the large population without clean water or sanitation or vulnerable from HIV or tuberculosis.
Others asked how a person can self-quarantine in a crowded slum. The continent has several of the world’s fastest-growing cities.
Despite widespread calls for “social distancing,” a cashier at a popular pharmacy in Johannesburg confided that some customers found it rude when she suggested they swipe their payment cards themselves to limit contact. Elsewhere in the store a shopper determinedly filled a cardboard box with “anti-germ” soap, and hand sanitizer was out of stock despite calls to stop panic buying.