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The Corona Conundrum

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Photograph by Motlabana Monnakgotla

With only four months to go this year, what is the inevitable uncertainty that awaits us? With a still-increasing Covid caseload, how must Africa and its battered economies learn to co-exist with the virus? A half-year report.

With the world attempting to return to normalcy in the second half of the year, global experts suggest the worst is not over yet.

Mid-year, globally, there had been over 15 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 with more than 600,000 deaths.

Speaking from Geneva, in June, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted we’re not out of the woods yet.

“Although the situation in Europe is improving, globally, it is worsening,” he warned.

With North America having, cumulatively, the highest incidence of Covid-19, globally, with over six million infections mid-year, Africa was at the bottom of the ranks, comparatively, with almost 600,000 confirmed cases as of July. But with fast-surging figures, the impact of the virus on the continent continues to have dire effects.

“Looks like the month of August will be the most devastating in terms of new cases and deaths,” says Dr Titus Divala, a medical doctor and epidemiologist based in Malawi.

This spike in cases will no doubt worsen the current burden on Africa’s already ailing public health systems, and in particular, will limit the attention on all other diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

As a result, this may lead to an unprecedented increase in preventable death, which Divala calls “Covid-19 collateral damage”.

In July, WHO acknowledged there was evidence emerging that Covid-19 is airborne. However, the organization emphasized that more research was “urgently needed”. Airborne transmission means that new infections could accelerate farther and faster.

“Until now, airborne transmission has never been on the cards. Our understanding from Chinese Covid-19 transmission dynamics data, supported by a body [of] evidence from SARS, MERS, and [previous] coronaviruses has always been that the virus spreads [via] droplets which are way bigger than aerosols [necessary for airborne transmission],” Divala says.

Experts like him caution that the emerging evidence must be taken seriously to re-orient prevention messaging before it’s too late. Particularly in Africa, where many socio-economic issues exist.

The Africa Covid-19 Community Vulnerability Index (Africa CCVI), developed by American development body, Surgo Foundation, outlines the 10 most vulnerable regions across the continent, identifying hotspots in six countries. They include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has four of Africa’s most vulnerable regions, and then, Malawi, with two, along with Ethiopia, Uganda, Cameroon, and Madagascar.

South Africa has emerged as one of the world’s top hotspots for the virus.

By the third week of July, the country recorded well over 350,000 cases and 5,000 deaths with 180,000 recoveries. The continent’s second biggest economy is currently on Level 2 of lockdown restrictions.

And then, there are the myriad unanswered questions: how long before a vaccine is developed?

At the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology, says Africa may likely see a Covid-19 vaccine in the first quarter of 2021.

In July, Madhi, who is also leading a vaccine trial at the university, told Reuters that the ‘ChAdOx1 nCoV-19’ experimental vaccine is one of 19 currently being tested on humans, globally. The vaccine is also being trial-ed in Brazil by scientists from Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

While trials are still in the early stages, business must go on. The second half of 2020 may see more firms attempting to return to normal operations.
In terms of the education sector, South Africa has decided to continue with the academic year with some pupils going back to school as others continue classes online.

In July, via Presidential Address, Kenya announced that the 2020 academic year has been completely lost. Schools are expected to resume only in early 2021.

In terms of industry, the challenge that remains is how to rebuild business over the next few months. All businesses will need to become more agile while adopting new technology and online marketplaces. But there are opportunities in the chaos and Covid-19 has accelerated change in building a new reality and navigating the risks as the pandemic rages on.

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 may be with us longer than we anticipate. However, there is hope that African experts will offer new solutions on how to co-exist with the virus, minimize transmissions, and keep our economies and societies running. For now, corporate Africa is preparing itself.

Tshandu Ramusetheli, a Senior Specialized Finance Transactor at Investec in Johannesburg, reiterates that to co-exist with the virus, businesses will need to re-engineer their offerings and adapt to new ways of doing work.

“Most companies (in the services sector) are realizing that their employees can work effectively from home. The downtime that employees would have spent traveling to and from work, coffee breaks in the office, lunches, and general ‘chats around the floor’ have all been replaced by employees spending more uninterrupted time in front of their computers in the comfort of their homes,” he says. “The effect of this is that employees tend to be more productive working from home. Smart employers will capitalize on this and introduce employee incentives for productivity, such as flexi-work where employees work four business days out of five.”

With more focus on the home, hospitals are also now gearing towards the home-based model of treatment for milder cases. FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 entrepreneur and list-maker Ogutu Okudo from Kenya resorted to exercising and making her own home-based treatments when she tested positive for Covid-19. She ate foods such as onion soup, wasabi, fruits, and took Vitamin C. In five days, she had fully recovered and got tested again with negative results.

“They say corona isn’t ‘real’ until you know someone who has gone through it, and in my case, that person happened to be me,” she tells FORBES AFRICA. With nations exiting lockdowns and lifting restrictions around the world and Covid-19 continuing on its unwavering rampage, the second wave of the pandemic may soon be upon us. The question is: how much longer before a well-conceived tested cure that is available to all?

By Karen Mwendera

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