Africa’s Covid-19 tzar defends South Africa’s handling of the pandemic

Africa’s Covid-19 tzar defends South Africa’s handling of the pandemic
Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) (Photo: Africa CDC)

Africa Centres for Disease Control’s John Nkengasong says SA’s high infection numbers reflect intensive testing.

Africa’s chief Covid-19 fighter has defended South Africa’s decision to ease its lockdown even as the numbers of infections and deaths are soaring in the country.

Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said South Africa’s high numbers were “not necessarily a negative”. 

He released the latest figures, which showed South Africa continuing to surge ahead of all other countries on the continent with 55,421 Covid-19 cases, followed by Egypt with 38,284, Nigeria with 13,873, Algeria with 10,484, Ghana with 10,358 and Cameroon with 8,681. However, Egypt has recorded the most deaths, 1,342, ahead of South Africa with 1,210. 

The data indicates a gradual shift away from north Africa as the regional epicentre towards west Africa, though with SA remaining the outlier. 

Nkengasong reacted to a warning from Dr Nathalie MacDermott, a clinical lecturer at King’s College London, who told AP that some countries might be getting lulled into a false sense of security, citing South Africa as an example.

“South Africa’s response looked quite promising initially, but it seems premature to release the lockdown without a better level of testing in place,” she said. 

Addressing a virtual press conference on Thursday, Nkengasong said MacDermott’s caution was “very valid.” 

“But we must realise there is a balance between saving lives and saving livelihoods. Not just in South Africa, but it’s true across the board. 

“When they were first challenged by the virus, South Africa and other countries did the right thing, which is lockdown. We must always remember the purpose of lockdown. It’s not to keep your people indoors forever. 

“It’s to make sure that you secure a space to intensify counter-measures which are threefold: ramp up your testing, then contact tracing and then treatment of patients. And South Africa did all of those. 

“Now we are at a very different level of the pandemic in South Africa. South Africa has conducted the most tests. And I’ve said many times, if you test, you’ll find. 

“So, South Africa has been testing and they now have a better idea of what is going on in the country because they’re testing more and finding more so they understand when the peak will occur, when the curve will flatten and then come down. If you are not testing you will never know where you are. You will be fighting in the darkness. 

“So I don’t necessarily take the high number of infections in South Africa as a negative,” he said, because South Africa had had a large outbreak, had taken the right measures and was now starting to bring the curve down. 

Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa, as chairperson of the African Union, convened a virtual meeting on Thursday of heads of state and government of the AU Bureau and the regional economic communities with the five special envoys he had appointed to drum up international financial support to Africa to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The meeting takes place against the backdrop of the rapid spread of coronavirus. The pandemic continues to have major impacts on the health and lives of people and threatens to have an even longer-lasting economic and social impact on the economies of Africa,” Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko, said. 

“During the first few months of the outbreak, governments around the world have been focused on containing the spread of the disease, relying in many cases on stringent transmission control measures. 

“It has become clear that the economic and social costs of the outbreak will be significant, with governments increasingly turning their attention to a broader set of policy interventions that can help mitigate such costs.

“Gross domestic product (GDP) projections have already been revised downward for most regions and countries, driven by shocks to both domestic demand and supply with sharp declines in the circulation of goods and services, as well as people and capital.”

Diko said the special envoys, who include former finance minister Trevor Manuel and Zimbabwean entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, would report to the heads of state on the progress of their efforts to elicit support for Africa in fighting the pandemic, including that pledged by the G20, the European Union (EU) and other international financial institutions.

The presidents were also to receive a presentation, ahead of its public launch, of the Africa Medical Supplies – a pool platform for African countries to procure critical medical supplies, such as test kits and personal protective equipment. 

Nkengasong said that each African country would be allocated a quota of medical supplies and equipment, according to its population size and the rate of Covid-19 infection in that country.   

Each country would be able to access the platform with a password and order and pay for supplies. He praised Masiyiwa for leading the effort by the envoys to persuade major donors and suppliers, including the US, the European Union and China, to increase provisions to the Africa Medical Supplies one-stop shop.

They had secured commitment, for instance, to providing 90 million test kits over the next six months. Nkengasong said the Cairo-based Afreximbank stood ready to provide credit lines to African countries which could not afford the medical equipment and supplies. 

He explained that the platform would help relieve the shortage of Covid-19-fighting equipment being experienced by African countries because of intense competition with so many other countries for these scarce commodities. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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