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Stopping the Spread in Africa - Impossible?

The Coronavirus first emerged in China in December and since the end of January it has been dominating global headlines. The previously unknown virus has impacted almost every aspect of society and has caused devastation in even the wealthiest of nations. China, followed swiftly by Europe and America have enforced measures that have not been seen, particularly in the West, for many decades. Entire cities are on lock-down and economic activity has significantly dwindled. In Northern Italy, people are no longer allowed to leave their homes even for a walk. Only essential services remain and as such every aspect of society has altered. So far, the virus has largely been impacting more affluent nations, with China and Italy being the worst affected. However, numbers in Africa are rising. Today, South Africa announced that they have 402 confirmed cases, a rise of 128 from yesterday. Already questions are being raised about how the continent might cope with a serious outbreak.

The World Health Organisation has a very clear, concise set of instructions indicating how individuals should act to allow their nations to get a hold of the vicious disease. There are four main points that consist of; washing your hands frequently and for 20 seconds with soap and water, maintaining social distancing, avoiding touching your face and staying at home in self-isolation for 14 days if you feel unwell. The concept of social distancing, defined as staying 2 metres away from anyone outside of your household, has caused mass disruption across Europe, America and China and it can only be concluded that this would be much harder on the African continent. Indeed, the majority of the recommendations put forward by the World Health Organisation would be difficult to enact in many part of Africa, thus significantly reducing their ability to curb this disease.

Recently, the BBC released a video from Kenya, in which they interviewed people living in an informal settlement. The views of one woman were particularly poignant, ‘we are being told we must wash our hands every-time we touch things. Use 20 seconds washing hands, this water is too much and we don’t have money.’ Indeed, UNICEF reported that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are 33 million people living in rural areas who do not have access to quality water. For many regions in Africa, the advice to wash your hands for 20 seconds is just not possible. Not only is water often too expensive, but many don’t even have access a safe supply. This does not take into account the difficultly many have in accessing soap. What seems as such a simple task for many of us, is extremely difficult in parts of the Africa and would be even harder to regulate.

Moreover, the idea of social distancing would also be challenging to enact on large parts of the continent. In informal settlements people live hand to mouth, and travel everyday on crowded public transport to earn enough to survive the day. They have no ability to stockpile food nor do they have the luxury of being able to stay home. Last year it was estimated that almost half of child deaths in Africa occurred due to hunger, this is a society that cannot stop working. Furthermore, it is likely to be much harder for governments to able to provide financial support for those who need to stop working in the event of a serious outbreak. Living in informal settlements is already a constant battle to survive, and so it is understandable as to why washing your hands and social distancing is not only unattainable, but also not a priority for many people.

Not only does day-to-day life have to continue, but many areas on the continent are full to bursting. In Alexandra, Johannesburg, 700,000 people live in an area of less than 5 kilometres. Kiberia, Nairobi, is also home to over 700,000. In many informal, and formal, settlements, the sheer number of people living in a small space makes social distancing and self-isolation totally impractical. The statistics highlight the issue; in 2019 it was estimated that 1 in 3 Africans live in poverty and they account for 70% of the worlds poor.

Seeing the destruction in Italy, makes the idea of a severe outbreak on the African continent terrifying. In Malawi, they have 25 intensive care beds for a population of 17 million. Many people live with the mentality of just trying to survive everyday. The WHO has provided instructions that should help contain the spread of coronavirus. However, there has been little consideration into how difficult these instructions are to follow for many around the world. It is true that this virus does not discriminate, anyone can catch it. Nonetheless, trying to contain the spread is luxury only certain nations can afford.

At the time of writing, Ellie Chesshire is a 4th year student at the University of Cape Town studying Justice and Transformation. Her main areas of interest at human rights, migration and post-conflict resolution.