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Stopping the Spread of Coronavirus in Africa

Dr. Judy Kuriansky

Clinical Psychology Professor at Columbia University Teachers College, United Nations Representative for the International Association of Applied Psychology, and Trustee at the United African Congress.

“The time is now to sound a really loud alarm about the potential Coronavirus spread in Africa,” Dr. Mohammed Nurhussein, Chairperson of the United African Congress forewarned at an event at the United Nations back in February 2020.

For weeks when the COVID-19 outbreak started spreading throughout the world, no cases were at first reported in Africa. But by March 1, three countries in Africa confirmed cases and, within a month, that jumped to thirty-six African countries currently with recorded cases of COVID-19 reported by April 3.

Recognizing the early threat, the United African Congress, of which I am a Trustee, took action, following our mandate as a Pan African non-profit organization to represent the interests of the African diaspora and friends, regarding health, culture and education. The UAC wrote to the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, H.E. Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat, sounding the alarm and requesting that the threat of the COVID-19 be placed on the agenda of the summit meeting of African heads of State in Ethiopia February 9-10, as a matter of utmost urgency. The letter also recommended a unified continental approach to prevent the disease from spreading in Africa.

Our chairman, Dr. Nurhussein, an Ethiopian-born doctor, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Downstate Medical Center in New York City and specialist in geriatrics, also noted that older people would be most vulnerable. While a staggering three quarters of Africa's population is made up of people below age 35, who are supposedly less vulnerable to the virus, the elderly population is highly at risk due to less access and affordability of healthcare.

So far the number of cases in Africa do not reach the levels of other countries in the world, as Italy, and the United States.

But the risks are grave. Even the medical infrastructure, supplies and staff of developed countries are struggling to handle the escalating number of infections, compared to the pervasive fragile health system infrastructure of African nations, with inadequate resources, supplies, funding, or trained health workers. Add to that, fluid borders and increasing connections through trade, business and investment, with countries of the world now infected.

Adding fuel to the fire is insecurity in some African regions, with armed conflict raging in varied regions, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has just managed to get the Ebola outbreak under control.

The relatively low numbers of cases reported now in Africa could be misleading, claims Nurhussein. Infections could go undetected, despite the fact that some African nations can increasingly do Covid-19 testing, according to WHO Africa, and despite preventive measures like lockdowns and quarantines.

Getting the population to adhere to “social isolation” is challenging, given that large African families live in crowded quarters, are accustomed to shop in overcrowded marketplaces, exchange wares, and use little protection, even tissues.

I know this first hand, having been in Sierra Leone during the height of the Ebola epidemic. Stopping the spread of the infection required re-educating the people to change their cultural practices, especially to conduct “safe burials” since the virus was transmitted by exposure to body fluids of the infected.

At first, myths prevailed, and conspiracy theories that white people or even international aid organizations purposefully spread the disease. Finally, communities listened, especially to their local and traditional healers.

Social media campaigns and public education help. These lessons can be applied to stop the spread of COVID-19. For example, Nigeria staved off the Ebola infection by the government’s early use of social media (SMS) messaging to educate the public. Radio campaigns, posts on fences and billboards also helped. I chronicled all these in the book I wrote about such lessons learned from Ebola, “The Psychosocial Aspects of a Deadly Epidemic: What Ebola Has Taught Us about Holistic Healing” documenting lessons from my mission to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, from being in Hong Kong during SARS, and efforts about HIV/AIDs worldwide, providing psychosocial advice and support to dispel fears and stigma.

Stopping the fear and panic is essential. Fears fester in the unknown and unseen, as is the case with the “silent killer” of COVID-19, but I know as a psychologist helping many people through such crises, once such feelings are expressed, and once a person learns the facts about how the disease spreads and its symptoms, the extreme of fears dispel. Fears also reduce when you know that such feelings are normal.

Both COVID-19 and Ebola are a “family disease”, spread by close family and community contacts. To stop the spread of coronavirus in Africa, families need to accept as they finally did in the case of Ebola, that separation is key to containment and mitigation, and that family closeness can return once the spread is stopped.

At the United Nations event back in February, my role was to give those messages, and to alert people that it is understandable to experience emotional suffering, and to offer hope that it will pass. Research proves the value of hope in the face of situations like COVID-19 that can trigger hopelessness.

As a co-founder of the “Health in Your Hand” initiative that profiles innovations to reach “those furthest behind,” this project is even more important now than when it was devised three years ago, as part of the “SDGs in Action” campaign of the United Arab Emirates. This applies to those in Africa who are indeed so often “left behind” due to their remote location and lack of resources.

The project is even more relevant as well, in the wake of the adoption of the Political Declaration of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by the governments of the United Nations last September 23, 2019. That agreement called for reaffirming, “the right of every human being, without distinction of any kind, to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”

Hopefully we can catch up to the realization of this as we conquer this scourge, and be ready with UHC for African nations and all countries, before any future pandemics.

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