Fears of a rapid spread of the coronavirus epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa were heightened on Friday, particularly in South Africa where the number of infections has passed the 200 mark.
Despite bans on gatherings, schools and border closures in many countries south of the Sahara, the Covid-19 virus continues to spread.
More than 500 contaminations and two deaths, including a Friday in Gabon, have been reported to date, according to the authorities. The island of Madagascar announced its first three cases on Friday, all of whom had recently travelled to France. And Zimbabwe on Friday reported its first case of contamination, that of a man who recently returned from Great Britain.
The number of infected people must not increase too rapidly, otherwise it will overwhelm our health system, we must turn the tide.
South Africa cases reach 200
South Africa continues to record the highest number of cases on the continent. The number has risen from 150 to 202 in just 24 hours.
“Scientists estimate that (…) up to 60% of the population could be affected by the virus,” said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, echoing the global projections of epidemiologists.
“The number of infected people must not increase too rapidly, otherwise it will overwhelm our health system,” he warned, “we must turn the tide”.
In recent days, the World Health Organization (WHO) has repeatedly expressed concern that the pandemic is spreading to the African continent, whose health systems are severely under-resourced.
“If countries like South Africa, which has one of the most developed systems in the region in both the public and private sectors, fear (…) an explosion of serious cases, it will indeed be difficult,” predicted its regional boss, Matshidiso Moeti, on Thursday.
SAA suspends all international flights
South African Airways (SAA) on Friday made its contribution to the effort to curb the disease by suspending all its international flights until May 31 in order to “help the government” and protect “the interest of our crews and passengers”.
The continent’s leading airline, Ethiopian Airlines, for its part announced the suspension of its flights to 30 at-risk countries, which it did not detail.
The South African government on Wednesday closed its borders to citizens of the countries most infected by the pandemic, notably Europe and the United States.
On Friday, the civil aviation authorities thus isolated fourteen flights from abroad on the tarmac of Johannesburg International Airport. “Only South African citizens are allowed to disembark,” the airport management warned on its Twitter account.
50-year-old dies of covid-19
Further north on the continent, a 50-year-old patient who had recently travelled to France died in Gabon from a Covid-19 infection.
The death brings the death toll in sub-Saharan Africa to two, after a first case reported in Burkina Faso.
In the aftermath, the Libreville government announced a ban on all domestic and international passenger flights, except in cases of force majeure.
Mosques closed in Senegal
In Senegal, mosques in the capital Dakar and its region remained closed on Friday. The authorities hesitated for a long time before giving the order to ban collective prayer, a decision that is controversial in this Muslim country at nearly 95%.
In Nigeria, the authorities had ordered on Thursday the “limitation” of religious events in the sprawling megalopolis of Lagos and its 20 million inhabitants. But Friday prayers were still widely followed.
The Zawiyat Sofwat El-Islam mosque, in a popular district of the city, welcomed a thousand worshippers, against 5,000 usually.
“I’m here despite the coronavirus to offer my prayers to God,” one of those worshippers, Alhaja Basirat Okeowo, told AFP. “We must all pray to ask him to remove this strange disease.
Kenya orders closure of bars
For its part, Kenya, which has so far reported only seven cases of infection, has announced the closure of bars from Monday evening and a strict limit on the number of customers in supermarkets.
These decisions “will determine whether the crisis develops with serious human and economic consequences or whether the effects of this disease will remain limited,” commented Kenyan Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe.
Although no cases have yet been reported on their soil, Mozambique and Malawi have announced the closure of their schools, and Angola has announced the closure of its borders.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 18 cases were reported on Friday, all in the capital Kinshasa, a four-fold increase from Thursday.
On Friday, Congolese music stars Fally Ipupa and Koffi Olomide posted videos on Twitter urging the public not to exchange kisses and handshakes and to wash their hands.
In Paris, it was the singer Aurlus Mabélé, a figure from the soukouss – a modern version of Congolese rumba – infected with the coronavirus, who died on Thursday at the age of 67.