More African countries have closed their borders as the spread of coronavirus threatened to turn the continent of 1.3 billion people into an alarming new front for the pandemic.
“About 10 days ago we had about five countries with the virus,” said the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Africa chief, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
Now, 35 of Africa’s 54 countries have cases, with the total close to 650. It is an “extremely rapid evolution”, she said.
In fact, the first sub-Saharan Africa case was announced on February 28.
She said she did not believe that large numbers of infected people are going undetected in Africa. However, she did acknowledge a challenge in the shortage of testing kits.
633 confirmed #COVID19 cases in #Africa in 33 countries and 17 deaths. In past 24 hrs, The Gambia, Mauritius & Zambia have announced first cases. @WHO is supporting countries with surveillance, diagnostics & treatment. https://t.co/V0fkK8dYTg pic.twitter.com/5EP26IT3Yh— WHO African Region (@WHOAFRO) March 19, 2020
Forty-three countries have testing capability, up from two when the outbreak began.
The WHO regional chief also expressed concern about travel restrictions and their impact on the ability to deliver needed resources. The WHO is considering humanitarian corridors.
But many African nations were taking their cue from China and other countries by sharply restricting travel.
On Thursday, Senegal closed its airspace. Angola and Cameroon shut air, land and sea borders. Rwanda blocked all commercial flights for a month. The island nation of Mauritius closed its border after announcing its first case.
Some people in other countries clamoured for their governments to block flights, too.
“To stop this virus once and for all is to stop any flight that will land at (Nairobi’s international airport). Let them stop,” said Uhuru Evans, a bus driver in the capital of Kenya, east Africa’s economic hub.
Simple hygiene practices can reduce your risk of #COVID19 & other respiratory illnesses.— WHO African Region (@WHOAFRO) February 28, 2020
If you think you may have been exposed to #coronavirus, please contact your healthcare provider immediately.https://t.co/n3a6b3foLz pic.twitter.com/NViXp9QvFu
He offered hand sanitiser to passengers as they boarded.
“Since it was announced that it has reached Kenya, I am refusing to take customers to the airport,” said Peter Muteru, a taxi driver. “It has reached a point where I carry only people I know.”
Some African nations also began cracking down on alcohol sales to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
South Africa — where the number of cases jumped to 150 from 116 — said all places that sell alcohol for drinking on site must close from 6pm to 9am. And they must accommodate less than 50 people at a time or close immediately.
Authorities have raised concerns about crowded drinking spots in the country with the most cases in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has barred attendance at bars and clubs, calling limiting “merry-making” a new front in virus prevention.