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World

Spread Of Coronavirus Accelerates Across Africa

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the World Health Organization has been really worried about what could happen if the virus hits countries without enough health workers or hospitals to care for patients. Many of those countries are now finding cases. NPR's Pien Huang reports on how they're preparing.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Coronavirus has overwhelmed some well-equipped and well-funded health systems in China, Italy and the United States. Joia Mukherjee says Africa is going to be a very different story. She is chief medical officer for Partners in Health, and she's extra concerned about what might happen as the coronavirus spreads in poor countries.

JOIA MUKHERJEE: I fully expect that when COVID hits, if it hits in a big way in impoverished countries, it could have a four to five times higher mortality rate.

HUANG: There's a couple of reasons why. When you look at health issues like tuberculosis, HIV and malnutrition, countries in Africa carry the world's heaviest burdens. It makes them more susceptible to coronavirus from the start.

MUKHERJEE: Then you take the problem with access - lack of access because of distance, money, insurance, and then the very impoverished health systems that they are coming into.

HUANG: The numbers vary by country, but across sub-Saharan Africa, there's about one doctor for every 5,000 people. And specialists - far less. And when it comes to expensive equipment like ventilators that help patients breathe, aid groups say countries like Central Africa Republic have three for the entire nation.

Francesco Checchi is an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says it's just not possible to set up enough beds and train enough staff to care for all of the most severe cases on the continent.

FRANCESCO CHECCHI: You have countries such as Burkina Faso where their baseline is nine intensive care beds across the entire country. And according to the forecasts that we currently have, they would need potentially on the order of 10,000 or more.

HUANG: Nigeria, on the other hand, has some resources to build up their supply of ventilators and hospital beds. Dr. Adaeze Oreh is a senior official with the Nigerian Ministry of Health. She says Nigeria is adding 20,000 more hospital beds. But their main focus is trying to prevent as many infections as possible.

ADAEZE OREH: The general populace in the major cities of Abuja and Lagos have been asked to stay home as much as possible and only leave their homes in the event they have an emergency or something really essential to do.

HUANG: More than 20 million people have been told to shelter in place. And it's especially hard in a country where half the population is below the poverty line and many people work every day to earn their daily bread. The U.N. warns that lockdown measures - now in many African countries - could lead to widespread hunger, creating yet another crisis. In many countries, including Nigeria, governments and aid groups are providing some amount of food aid to help ease the hardships that come from trying to contain the spread of the virus.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "SIGNALS IN THE DUSK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.