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Countries in sub-Saharan Africa may face 'huge peak' in coronavirus cases 'very soon,' WHO warns

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa could see a peak in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, and testing should be urgently increased in the region, World Health Organization officials said Thursday.

'Urgent need' to expand testing capacity beyond capital cities in Africa, says WHO's Matshidiso Moeti

WHO's Africa head, Matshidiso Moeti, said there is an 'urgent need' to expand testing capacity beyond capital cities in Africa, as the virus spreads through countries. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa could see a peak in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, and testing should be urgently increased in the region, World Health Organization officials said Thursday.

"During the last four days, we can see that the numbers have already doubled," Michel Yao, WHO's Africa program manager for emergency response, said at a media teleconference on Thursday.

"If the trend continues, and also learning from what happened in China and in Europe, some countries may face a huge peak very soon."

The numbers of people infected with the coronavirus in Africa have been relatively low so far — with nearly 11,000 cases and 562 deaths, according to a Reuters tally based on government statements and WHO data.

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Infection numbers 'growing fast'

The WHO's Africa head, Matshidiso Moeti, said there is an "urgent need" to expand testing capacity as the virus spreads through countries. While 48 of Africa's 54 countries now have testing capability, that often is limited to their capitals or other major cities.

"Without help and action now, poor countries and vulnerable communities could suffer massive devastation," WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told diplomats in Geneva.

"The infection numbers in Africa are relatively small now, but they are growing fast."

He said the havoc wrought even in wealthy countries in the 100 days since China first informed WHO of cases of a "pneumonia of unknown cause" in the city of Wuhan.

Even if testing kits and other equipment are found, another challenge is delivering them amid the thicket of travel restrictions. Cargo space is rare because many airlines have stopped flights to African destinations, Yao said.

Close to 20 African countries have closed their borders, and several are now under lockdown to try to prevent the virus's spread. Millions of people wonder whether nations will follow Rwanda's lead in extending the period that all but essential workers are confined to their homes.

Lifting the lockdowns will depend on the situation in neighbouring countries, said John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Otherwise, "what's the point? If Botswana or Zimbabwe have cases and South Africa opens up, you waste everybody's time."

Feeling the economic impact

African leaders, including the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda, have rallied around Tedros, a former foreign minister of Ethiopia, after U.S. President Donald Trump criticized the United Nations agency and threatened to withhold his country's contribution to its budget.

Although Africa accounts for a fraction of global cases of the disease, its countries are feeling the economic impact. In a report published Thursday, the World Bank said the outbreak is expected to push sub-Saharan Africa into recession in 2020 for the first time in 25 years.

The bank's Africa's Pulse report said the region's economy will contract 2.1 per cent to 5.1 per cent from growth of 2.4 per cent last year, and that the coronavirus will cost sub-Saharan Africa $37 billion US to $79 billion in output losses this year because of trade and value chain disruption, among other factors.

With files from The Associated Press

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