By Sharon Atieno

With countries easing lockdowns and other restrictions that were put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa reveals that up to 190,000 people could die in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures are not put in place.

The research which looks at 47 countries in the WHO African region and is based on prediction modeling also finds that in the same period, 29 million to 44 million people could get infected.

“This would overwhelm health systems, leading to more than three million COVID-19 hospitalisations, of which around 100,000 would require oxygen support and more than 50,000 would require support to breathe,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti , the WHO Regional Director for Africa during a press conference.

“It would also lead to reduced access to routine health services, which I’ve mentioned are extremely important to be sustained, so that communities are not vulnerable to other health issues.”

A survey of health services in the African region undertaken in March 2020 based on self-reports by 47 countries to WHO revealed that there were on average nine intensive care unit beds, these would be inadequate for such a scenario. Furthermore, the physical access to these services by the general population is very low, thus many people would not even have the chance to get to the needed care.

“The importance of promoting effective containment measures is ever more crucial, as sustained and widespread transmission of the virus could severely overwhelm our health systems,” said Dr Moeti. “Curbing a large scale outbreak is far costlier than the ongoing preventive measures governments are undertaking to contain the spread of the virus.”

Additionally, the study also reveals that smaller African countries alongside Algeria, South Africa and Cameroon were at a high risk if containment measures are not prioritized.

According to the WHO Regional Director for Africa, there is a critical need to keep a balance between the lockdown measures to control and the economic impact and releasing these measures in a progressive way based on data and on certain conditions.

This includes documented decrease in the number of rates of transmission; putting in place public health capacity to deal with case identification, isolation and contact tracing at all levels beyond the capital city to where the virus can potentially be spread; taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable in the community such as food;and creating awareness in the communities among other measures.

Currently, there are more than 51,000 confirmed cases and 2000 lives lost due to COVID-19 across the continent.