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Concern Grows Over Africa's Readiness For Coronavirus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The coronavirus was late to appear in Africa, but the number of cases there is now expanding dramatically. That is a great cause for concern because many countries in Africa are ill-equipped to deal with the health challenges posed by COVID-19. NPR's Eyder Peralta is monitoring developments from his base in Nairobi, Kenya.

Hey, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So first, can you just give us an idea of the overall number of cases in Africa at the moment?

PERALTA: The whole continent has more than 700 cases. And the thing is that last week, we didn't even have a hundred cases. Last week, we had only a handful of countries reporting cases. Now we have 33 of them.

Earlier today, I spoke to Dr. Ahmed Kalebi, who is the CEO of Lancet Labs here in Kenya. And he's actually in self-quarantine because he has COVID-19 symptoms, but he's really worried because he says those numbers may be really low. African countries, he says - they're just not getting enough tests. And Kenya, he says, has only a couple of hundred tests left. So they're just not testing widely. He says he actually tried to buy kits for his private lab, and the manufacturer told him he couldn't buy them for at least four weeks because they were being sent to the U.S. or to Europe. Let's listen.

AHMED KALEBI: The approach which African countries are taking right now is out of a dire shortage of the kits. And if we learn from the history that we have seen in all the other countries, I think we are in for a big, big shock.

PERALTA: A big shock, he says, because the number here on the continent could be much greater.

CHANG: OK. So there's a clear shortage of testing capabilities, but what about medical equipment to treat patients who are already sick? I mean, in Europe, we're hearing about hospitals running out of ventilators. There's a push to manufacture more ventilators here in the U.S. What about in African countries? I mean, what kind of medical equipment is available to doctors and patients right now?

PERALTA: So that doesn't look good either. I mean, in the whole of Kenya, a country of 50 million people, there are 200 critical care beds. In South Africa, which has one of the most developed health systems, there are less than two critical beds per 100,000 people. And compare that to the U.S., which is around 34.

Jean-Jacques Muyembe, one of the most respected epidemiologists here on the continent, is painting a really grim picture. He led Congo out of the Ebola outbreak, and he says African hospitals - they just don't have the capability to handle the severe cases. They don't have the ability to resuscitate. They don't have - even the health professionals don't even have the protective equipment that they need. Here's what he said during a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

JEAN-JACQUES MUYEMBE: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: So he essentially says that health workers will get sick. They will leave the hospital, and then we're going to see panic.

CHANG: Well, you are in Nairobi, which is a big city. It's a regional hub. Just talking to people where you are, what has the mood been like? Are people taking this seriously enough?

PERALTA: Yeah, I think they are. I mean, look. The government has put in place really tough restrictions. They've banned big gatherings, and they're warning people to keep their distance. I mean, some parts of Nairobi right now are completely empty, and I think that tells you that they are taking it seriously.

CHANG: And what about economic activity? I mean, does it compare over there with what's been happening here in the U.S.? - because everything's kind of ground to a halt where we are.

PERALTA: Yeah, it's had a huge effect. I mean, Rwanda and Senegal, for example, have just announced that they're shutting down their airports. There's no flights in and out. And here in Nairobi, tourism has come to a halt. So many people - they're out of work, and the Kenyan government is not going to do like the American government. They're not going to cut people checks.

So people I've spoken to - they're worried about next week. They're not getting paid. Their government isn't in a position to help. So how are they going to eat? How will their kids eat next week, in the next few days when their food runs out? That's what they're worried about.

CHANG: That is NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta in Nairobi.

Thank you, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.