Africa is finally joining the rest of the world in providing the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccinations to its people, beginning with Rwanda and Kenya. Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Angola and Congo have also received their first vaccine doses, while Mali, Senegal, Malawi and Uganda are set to receive them later this week. Given the continent surpassed 100,000 confirmed deaths last month, the roll-out is inarguably long overdue.
For months, African health officials have decried the inequity of global vaccine distributions, whereby only a handful of wealthy countries have managed to secure vast quantities of doses for themselves despite a critically limited supply. Meanwhile, African authorities face the mammoth task of vaccinating 60% of its population of 1.3 billion people.
This week’s vaccine deliveries are part of the international Covax initiative designed to boost Africa’s capacity to fight the coronavirus. Run by the World Health Organization (WHO) in tandem with health non-government organisations (NGOs), Covax aims to deliver vaccines to dozens of countries in the first 100 days of 2021, up to one-fifth of each country’s total vaccine needs. The almost four million AstraZeneca/Oxford shots received by Nigeria, for example, are the first of 16 million doses that Covax intends to deliver to the country of 200 million people.
A closer look at the death toll thus far, however, reveals that the continent has done surprisingly well during the pandemic compared to most Western countries. While this is partially due to the relative youth of African populations – more than 60% of the continent is aged below 25 – it also reflects the impact of concerted and prescient healthcare development projects in specific countries long before COVID-19 reared its head.
Senegal: betting on Ellipse Projects
Senegal, for example, selected in 2017 the French health infrastructure provider Ellipse Projects to construct four cutting-edge hospitals with a total of 750 beds in the cities of Touba, Kaffrine, Sédhiou and Kédougou. The €150 million contract includes conducting studies, construction work, equipment supply for medical and technical services, and the commissioning and maintenance of the hospitals. When COVID-19 hit, Ellipse Projects was already on track for completing constructions and getting the hospitals operational by the first quarter of 2021.
As a consequence, Senegal’s health infrastructure has proven itself to be the cornerstone of the country’s strategy to contain the virus. The new hospitals built by Ellipse Projects have allowed newly diagnosed COVID-19 patients, regardless of how mild or severe their condition, to be provided with a hospital or health center bed where they can be isolated and observed. The policy appears to be working: in a country of 16 million people, fewer than 900 people have lost their lives to the virus.
“Senegal is doing quite well, and we were impressed at the beginning at the full engagement and commitment by the head of state,” observes Michel Yao, program manager for emergency response for the World Health Organization Africa.
External resource injections have proved similarly vital to Senegal’s battle against COVID-19. During the height of the first wave in May 2020, Ellipse Projects donated 100 million CFA francs to the Senegalese Ministry of Health and Social Action to assist in meeting the health sector’s ever-growing need for protection and hygiene materials, such as surgical masks, gloves and alcohol gels.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world, and Senegal is no exception, in an unprecedented health and economic crisis,” explained Ellipse Projects CEO Olivier Picard at the time. “This virus knows no borders or social classes. It is essential that the private sector support in a coordinated manner the efforts of the state.”
DR Congo: learning from Ebola
While Senegal has therefore benefitted from a forward-looking policy and critical infrastructure improvements through Ellipse Projects, it’s not the only country to have withstood the virus well. Another example is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where frontline health workers were already fighting a record Ebola outbreak by the time COVID-19 hit African shores.
Far from tipping the country over the edge, however, COVID-19 only cemented the DRC’s masterclass in pandemic containment; Ebola health screenings for travellers were seamlessly extended to include COVID-19, and existing public health measures such as isolating the infected, tracing their contacts, and quarantining patients during testing worked to set the DRC apart from countries far slower to react.
After the first local case of COVID-19 was reported in February 2020, Africa was quick to close borders and quarantine confirmed cases. And thanks to an ever-strengthening public health infrastructure and the evolution of pandemic measures, Africa has delivered impressive results in pandemic containment compared to the continent’s capacities less than a decade ago. Perhaps against all expectations, Africa has proved adept at weathering the COVID-19 pandemic better than most.