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Did We Beat COVID-19?

April 25 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian tesfaye (christian. is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling. )

On March 13, 2020, the first case of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) was confirmed in Ethiopia. It was not welcome news. For weeks before then, the disease had been ravaging Europe, with the number of cases growing exponentially and a higher fatality rate being reported than was the case in Asia.

The scene of patients on respirators and ventilators in hospitals and the anecdotal experiences of people with the virus on social media seemed to be harbingers of what was to be visited on Africa very soon.

If COVID-19 was ravaging the health systems of countries far more advanced, with better contact tracing, treating and organisational capabilities than Ethiopia, then what chance did we have?

It was a question everyone asked. It seemed a foregone conclusion that even with the strictest of social distancing measures, the country would be blighted significantly.

It has already been six weeks, and this seems not to have happened. There is still no conclusive evidence to suggest that Ethiopia will be spared the worst of the pandemic and that precautionary measures should be suspended. But there seems to be a gradually growing consensus that African countries such as Ethiopia might have dodged a bullet here.

The number of cases has passed 100, but they have done so very gradually. This has been the case even as daily testing significantly increased to over 1,000 and the occasional jumps by eight or nine more reported cases in a day. But the daily growth rate has largely been below five percent without any visible signs of a significant jump.

There is an argument to be made that testing is still well below what it should be to feel comfortable. And despite a few initiatives, testing has focused on people with symptoms and travel histories.

But then again, if there is exponential growth, with the government, the media, health professionals and organisations and citizens as vigilant as they are, it is hard to believe it has completely gone unnoticed. Our health systems and disease recognition and response capacity may be low, but not non-existent.

We have a government and institutions that have been tasked with detecting and battling bacterial and viral outbreaks such as Malaria, Cholera, Measles and HIV/AIDs for decades. This infrastructure, know-how and tracing capabilities still exist. Our public health institutions may not be state-of-the-art or even adequately funded, but it is unfair of us to assume that they would be so incompetent to fail to sniff out an outbreak right under there noses for six whole weeks.

While scepticism should not only be welcome but encouraged as well, we should also not let the view that Ethiopia is poor be the reason for us to deny that, against the odds and defying expectations, the curve may somehow have been flattened.

But how do we explain what has happened? How is it possible that a disease that ravaged countries with far more advanced health infrastructure and response mechanisms has barely impacted ours?

Not much is known about the disease so there has not been any conclusive reason given for what seems to at least be an unusual delay. Perhaps it is a stroke of luck or a stark reminder of how loosely integrated with the globalised word almost all African countries are. I am sure that many of our folk would say that it is divine intervention.

We may also never know, as was the case with the swine flu outbreak of 2009. A relatively milder flu outbreak with far lower case mortality, lab-confirmed deaths stood around 18,000. But estimates by CDC and WHO have put the numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Like we never found out the extent of the damage of the Swine Flu, we may never know why we have dodged a bullet with COVID-19.

There is only one thing that all of this points to, and that is the importance of caution. The fact that it seems that we will not be devastated the same way Italy, Spain or the United States were should not be a reason for us to let our guard down. If anything, it should give us encouragement that the prices we are paying with our freedom of movement and organisation are working and should be maintained until enough testing has been done to ascertain that the curve has indeed been flattened.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 25,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1043]

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