The Current

World will survive COVID-19 only if 'swift action' taken to help Africa, UN humanitarian says

Stephen Lewis, the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, discusses the devastating impact the pandemic could have on the continent.

Virus could wreak the kind of havoc last seen during HIV/AIDS pandemic: Stephen Lewis

Screening passengers at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Jason Burles/CBC)

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Diplomat and humanitarian Stephen Lewis says the COVID-19 pandemic could be as devastating to the African continent as HIV/AIDS was, unless more is done to stop the virus' spread.

Lewis told The Current's host Matt Galloway that the fragility of African health systems, limited numbers of medical professionals and health-care workers and a lack of adequate equipment all make the region particularly vulnerable.

"All of this is so minimal on the continent that if the coronavirus hits in a brutal and ferocious way, as is predicted by some, then we will experience again the kind of devastation that we saw during the height of the AIDS pandemic in the late 90s and early 2000s. And it is just a nightmare," he said.

In addition, techniques which are key to fighting the virus — such as hand-washing and social distancing — are not achievable in all countries. Lewis pointed out that parts of Zimbabwe only have access to water during certain hours of the day. And people living in Africa's biggest slum, Kibera, outside Nairobi, won't be able to maintain physical distance given crowded conditions. 

"The things we take for granted in our western community are not easily adapted to Africa," said Lewis.

Stephen Lewis served as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

Lewis, who served as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa and is co-chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and co-director of AIDS-Free World, said the effects of COVID-19 could undermine some of the gains made against other infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.

So far, the spread of the novel coronavirus has been relatively limited across Africa. But that's expected to change soon. South Africa — which Lewis described as "terrifyingly at risk" — is  already coping with a troubling spike in cases. This week, the country imposed a 21-day nationwide lockdown — the largest in the continent — as its number of cases climbed above 700.

Finance ministers from the African Union have called for a co-ordinated response to the pandemic and $100 billion US in emergency aid from the international community.

Lewis said there is also reason for hope despite the gravity of the situation. He pointed to the strength of community-level organizations in Africa.

"In many, many countries you have at the community level this inordinate strength and generosity of spirit and determination. And that's what will get them through this kind of thing."

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New York spread a 'nightmare'

But Lewis, who also served as Canada's Ambassador to the UN under former prime minister Brian Mulroney, is not only concerned about what COVID-19 could mean for Africa. He described the situation in New York City, where the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate, as a "nightmare."

On Wednesday the number of confirmed cases in New York reached more than 30,000. Across the United States there are now about 54,000 confirmed cases.

Unlike in Canada, where federal officials say they are letting expertise from the fields of public-health, medicine, and science guide their response, the White House is taking a different approach.

"Science is everything in a situation like this as it has been around infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis and Ebola. Science is always the benchmark against which you measure interventions," Lewis said. "And I think that science would be everywhere predominant if it weren't for the lunacy of the president of the United States."

'We'll get through this'

Asked about how he's personally faring, Lewis replied that like many Canadians he is staying home, keeping physical distance from family members, and closely following the news. 

"I feel probably just as overwhelmed as everyone else. This is the most obsessive preoccupation in life," he said. "It's absolutely staggering. I've just never seen anything like it."

But Lewis added he is heartened by Canadians' collective determination in the face of the challenge. 

"We'll get through this. I don't doubt we will. It's just that we don't want to leave carnage behind."

Written and produced by Idella Sturino.

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