By Sharon Atieno

Though Africa has recorded more than 34,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 1500 deaths, the slow spread of the disease in the region has been largely attributed to prompt action by governments to implement lockdowns and physical distancing, alongside effective public health measures to test, trace and treat.

However, according to Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, the rapid easing of confinement measures by different governments may revert this progress.

 “National and regional lockdowns have helped to slow down the spread of COVID, but it remains a considerable public health threat,” said Dr Moeti. “Lockdowns are being eased in some parts of Africa, but we cannot just revert back to how things were before the outbreak. If governments abruptly end these measures, we risk losing the gains countries have made so far against COVID-19.”

Several countries have started to relax their confinement measures. Ghana, for instance, despite putting other restrictions in place, it was the first to lift its partial lockdown in Accra and Kumasi. South Africa is also considering easing its confinement measures and has scaled up its testing efforts.

Preliminary data indicate that countries that implemented nationwide lockdowns found that the weekly increase in the number of new cases fell significantly from a 67% rise in the first week after the lockdown to a 27% rise in the second week.

Furthermore, the initial analysis indicates that countries which implemented partial and targeted lockdowns along with effective public health measures may have been even more effective at slowing down the virus.

“We are still analysing the data. If further research corroborates our initial findings that targeted lockdowns, based on data and accompanied by public health measures contribute to flattening the COVID-19 curve, this could help balance the huge social costs of these measures for countries,” said Dr Moeti.

The first country to implement a lockdown in the WHO African Region was Rwanda on 21 March, since then 11 countries have followed. A further 10 have instituted partial lockdowns of cities or high risk communities.

Despite progress on testing for COVID-19, countries in the WHO African region are averaging nine tests per 10 000 people. WHO is working to improve testing capacity by shipping a further round of test kits to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In the past two weeks, the Organization has brought personal protective equipment and other crucial equipment to countries across Africa in partnership with the World Food Programme, the African Union, the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the Government of Ethiopia and the Jack Ma Foundation.