Africa cannot manage the spread of coronavirus infections without donors’ support

More than 30 African countries have reported coronavirus infections. The matter has been addressed without delay, but Finland’s missions in Tanzania and Mozambique estimate that countering the epidemic may be difficult and Africa will need outside support.

People walking in Maputo, Mozambique.
Social distancing is difficult in densely populated African countries. Picture from Maputo, Mozambique.

On 16 March, the Government of Tanzania reported the first coronavirus infection in the country but after that more cases have been detected.

“The country prepared for the situation before the first infections were detected by checking travellers for fever at airports and by informing citizens about the importance of washing hands,” says Debuty Head of Mission Heini Pulli from Finland’s Embassy in Dar es Salaam.

“The situation started to show in everyday life only after cases had been confirmed. The Government ordered that buses must not take passengers if the seating capacity is full, schools were closed for 30 days, and public gatherings are prohibited. The healthcare authorities have also prepared contingency plans,” Pulli adds.

In Mozambique, which is Tanzania’s neighbouring country, coronavirus infections have not yet been confirmed, but many of the countries bordering Mozambique as well as the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Eswatini have declared a state of emergency.

The fact that Mozambique has not reported any infections tells more about the weaknesses of the country's healthcare system than about the coronavirus situation. In any case, measures to counter the epidemic have been started: gatherings of more than 300 persons have been prohibited and some schools have been closed for at least two weeks.

“The Government of Mozambique has acted swiftly and decisively and in good cooperation with donors. Travel restrictions and quarantines were imposed soon on the countries that are suffering from the epidemic the most, including many Member States of the European Union,” says Counsellor Markus Heydemann from Finland’s Embassy in Maputo.

In both Mozambique and Tanzania, preparedness shows also in that the shelves in stores are empty. This is because people have started to prepare for possible restrictions on movement and the impacts of closed borders. In Mozambique and Maputo in particular, almost all goods and foods come from South Africa, which has now closed many borders with neighbouring Mozambique. As far is known, goods transport is continuing despite the closing of border stations.

Isolation is not an option

Slowing down the spread of coronavirus infections and treating patients is a huge challenge for Tanzania and Mozambique, which belong to the poorest countries of the world. According to Heini Pulli, it is likely that the epidemic will spread widely in Tanzania despite the precautionary measures.

“In Tanzania, social distancing is difficult for cultural reasons, because families are usually big and they live in overcrowded houses and in close-knit communities. So there is no space for isolation.”

In the same way as has already been seen in China and Europe, the biggest challenge will be the capacity of healthcare systems to manage the epidemic. In Tanzania like in many other countries in the area, the current state of healthcare services is underdeveloped.

“In Tanzania, there are limited possibilities to get hospital treatment, not to speak about intensive care,” says Pulli.

The situation is difficult in Mozambique, too, because the country’s healthcare capacity is inadequate, distances are long, and people do not know enough about the importance of hand hygiene. Another challenge in both countries is how to tackle false information spreading especially in social media and rumours about coronavirus and matters related to it.

External assistance needed

Many developing countries will need support to be able to fight the spread of coronavirus. Tanzania approached donors as early as in February, requesting support for measures relating to healthcare in the country’s contingency plan.  In Mozambique, ongoing development cooperation programmes are now directed to support the healthcare sector.

“Donors’ support will be needed, and in its allocation the countries will work in close cooperation with donors’ operating in the healthcare sector,” Heydemann says.

At present, the missions focus on monitoring the coronavirus situation. Finland's missions abroad are now mainly directing their resources to informing Finnish travellers about the situation in their host country and in Finland and to helping them return to Finland.