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A woman washes her hands

Coronavirus in Africa

Preventing a humanitarian disaster

At present, coronavirus has spread to almost all parts of the world and has infected several hundred thousand people. For tens of thousands of those infected, the disease has been fatal. Most cases of infection are currently in the USA and Europe, while the African continent has been spared a large-scale epidemic to date. But this may soon change. Coronavirus cases have now been recorded in almost every African country.

The low number of cases compared to Europe and the USA is encouraging at first glance, but due to the lack of available coronavirus tests, the number of unreported cases may be much higher. In addition, the African continent is much more vulnerable than Europe or the USA. Measures that help in the Global North may even lead to a further threat to people in the Global South. People in impoverished areas are particularly at risk due to a lack of clean water, hygiene products and residential space. In many countries, the health systems are ill-prepared for a major epidemic. Many resources are lacking. Without rapid and forward-looking action, coronavirus in Africa could lead to a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions.

Many African states have already responded by adopting measures such as travel restrictions, school closures or bans on public gatherings to keep the outbreak in check.

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#WHHfightsCorona - Our Work Across The Globe

Using the hashtag #WHHfightsCorona, Welthungerhilfe staff share their experiences directly from the project areas.

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Coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS – what are we dealing with?

The coronavirus is a novel pathogen that leads to a lung disease called COVID-19. The term coronavirus is actually an umbrella term; there are a number of different coronaviruses that can also lead to different diseases. Officially the current virus is called "SARS-CoV-2". SARS stands for "Severe Acute Respiratory" Syndrome.

The origin of the novel virus has not yet been entirely determined. It is believed that the pathogen originates from bats.

COVID-19: disease, symptoms and transmission

The infectious disease known as COVID-19 is a respiratory disease similar to influenza but much more contagious. Common symptoms are fever, cough, a runny nose and a sore throat. If the course of the disease is severe, it can also lead to breathing difficulties and even pneumonia. Similar to the flu, COVID-19 is mainly passed on via a so-called droplet infection.

How can I protect myself?

The best measure to protect against infection is physical distance. As there is no vaccine yet, we as a society must ensure that the spread of the virus is stopped. The German Ministry of Health also advises people to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, not to touch their face and cough into the crook of their arm.

These measures help against the spread of the coronavirus. © Welthungerhilfe
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Washing hands properly helps to stem the spread of the coronavirus. © Welthungerhilfe
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Africa and coronavirus – the ticking time bomb.

Africa's fate in the coming weeks depends on how well the continent can cope with an epidemic of unprecedented proportions. The situation is very serious. This has been recognised by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who called on African countries to prepare for the worst with the words "Africa must wake up".  

The plight of Italy, Spain, France and the USA makes it clear that the threat posed to Africa by coronavirus could reach unimagined proportions. The number of cases and deaths in these European countries are among the highest in the world. Their health systems are under such strain that a number of patients have been transferred hundreds of kilometres to receive treatment while medical staff have been forced in some cases to decide who receives treatment and who does not. It is no secret that Africa's health systems are not nearly as developed as those in Europe, and this suggests that they would be unable to cope with a large-scale epidemic."

Poverty fuels the spread of coronavirus

Countries already confronted with poverty, hunger, wars, large amounts of refugees and the effects of climate change will be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus in Africa. Many people in these countries do not have sufficient access to clean water or hygiene products, meaning they are unable to properly wash their hands – a simple but highly effective preventative measure. In addition, many live in very confined spaces, which would only accelerate the spread of the infection. Government measures such as social distancing, quarantine or even stay-at-home orders would do more harm than good to those affected.

A mother carrying her child.
In Africa, the coronavirus has particularly fatal consequences for people who are already confronted with poverty, hunger, wars, flight and the effects of climate change: They are less resilient to the virus. Furthermore their living situation is aggravated by the restrictions for protection against the virus, as their only sources of income are lost. In Kenya, for example, Madeline Shimuli, 22 years old, is now dependent on food aid, which she picks up at a distribution of Welthungerhilfe in the Kibera district of Nairobi. © Welthungerhilfe

Since many people are self-sufficient and have to work every day to make ends meet, not being able to do so would threaten their lives. Working from home is not an option, because a large part of Africa's population works in the agricultural sector. Millions of people would suffer income losses and have no or limited access to the resources needed to get by day-to-day. Stocks, if they exist at all, would be rapidly depleted, leading to famine in many regions in a worst case scenario.

That a looming recession would further worsen the situation of people in many African countries is a frightening prospect. Model calculations have shown that with just one percent less economic growth, the number of poor and starving people could rise by two percent. In particular, the recession would affect people with precarious employment, such day as labourers, and employees in the service, catering and retail sectors.

One crisis after another

The health crisis could trigger a food crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic hits the poorest people hardest. In addition to short-term necessary crisis responses, long-term development measures need to remain on the agenda.

As other world events capture our collective attention, African countries continue to face a number of different crises. Many people are suffering due to violent conflicts, serious crop failures and destructive natural disasters. These crises threaten to fade further into the background due to the media's focus on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many African countries, coronavirus could lead to a "crisis within a crisis". For example, in the Central African Republic, which has been engulfed in a violent civil war since 2013, about 2.6 million people rely on humanitarian aid. In Madagascar there are around 2.6 million people going hungry due to the consequences of climate change.

Currently, East Africa, especially Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, is being ravaged by a huge swarm of locusts that are destroying everything in their path. Millions upon millions of insects have formed a swarm 60 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide, eating enough food in one day to feed 35,000 people. Somalia has already declared a state of emergency.

If coronavirus spreads in the crisis-ridden African states, the situation will get drastically worse for a large number of people.

Africa's experience in dealing with epidemics: a glimmer of hope

Unfortunately, epidemics are not uncommon in Africa. For example, no fewer than 22 Ebola outbreaks have claimed over 14,000 lives since 1976. The Democratic Republic of Congo has been particularly hard hit, with over 2,000 people dying in the last major outbreak. For two years, attempts were made there to defeat the virus – with success. Although there has been no official all-clear, the last Ebola patient was allowed to leave the clinic on 3 March. 

The fight against the Ebola epidemic was an important lesson in epidemic management for many African countries. Ebola is far more infectious and deadly than SARS-CoV-2, with a mortality rate of up to 60 percent (the rate for coronavirus is up to 3 percent). The measures taken in the past against Ebola should also prove effective against coronavirus.

A woman and her child at an Ebola checkpoint
A woman and her child at an Ebola checkpoint in 2014, being checked for symptoms typical of Ebola. © Daniel Pilar

Above all, the early containment of the disease is crucial in order not to overburden fragile health systems. Education plays a major role in this. During the Ebola epidemic, many people took false information on board. Only clarification by trusted persons such as pastors or community leaders helped many people to understand the disease and take precautions. 

The construction of isolated Ebola clinics also helped to achieve a breakthrough. By using this approach and providing sufficient test kits, an emerging coronavirus epidemic in Africa could be combatted at an early stage.

Coronavirus could have dramatic consequences for Africa. Please help us to prevent them.

Welthungerhilfe's efforts to combat coronavirus

Welthungerhilfe has already created a four-stage crisis plan for the new threat. The aim is to safeguard all work processes and to continue our projects worldwide while protecting our local teams. Provided we are not contravening any local regulations, we will continue to work with communities to fight hunger and remain at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus.

Coronavirus comic

A comic strip created by Welthungerhilfe and Wash United educates children and young people in 20 languages about coronavirus and other preventative hygiene measures.

Welthungerhilfe's teams have already gained valuable experience in dealing with epidemics during the past Ebola outbreaks in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We provided support for educational courses on the epidemic and hygiene, as well as the setting up of hygiene facilities and treatment centres.

Such measures have already been launched against coronavirus in Africa and others are under consideration. In the short term, Welthungerhilfe has provided 500,000 euros in emergency aid. With this we are supporting local partner organisations in the production, procurement and distribution of educational material. Training courses on COVID-19 are also being integrated into all WASH projects – ensuring hygiene is a top priority in times of epidemics. Merely being able to wash your hands reduces the risk of infection. Therefore, we are installing more hygiene facilities in public places and are securing the supply of running water and soap. We are also providing emergency food distribution to vulnerable people particularly affected by coronavirus.

Support our work in Africa now. COVID-19 is a great threat to the people on the ground. A large-scale outbreak could cost many people their lives. Help now by donating to our projects preventing the spread of coronavirus!

This is what Welthungerhilfe is doing to combat the spread of coronavirus in our project countries

Support for local partner organisations in the creation, procurement and use of educational material such as posters, radio spots, loud speaker announcements and social media content in local languages.

An educational comic strip in over 20 languages distributed internationally.

COVID-19 education is being integrated into ongoing WASH projects, for example in hygiene education courses.

New hand-washing facilities are being installed, soap is being distributed and water supplies are being secured in public places such as markets and schools.

New latrines and washing facilities are being installed. This is especially important in places with many people in a confined space (such as refugee camps).

We are providing support to facilitate the regular cleaning of existing facilities.

People in quarantine are being supplied with food.