The World Health Organisation on the coronavirus peak, ending lockdown, and the smoking ban in South Africa

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that about a third of African countries are heading towards their coronvirus peak in the coming months – while also providing insight into effective lockdown strategies, and its position on smoking bans.

The WHO presented a panel of experts on the coronavirus in Africa on Thursday (7 May), who laid out how the pandemic could affect the continent, and how the continent could look after the crisis.

Much of the picture down the line will depend on what is done today, the group said.

As at Thursday, 52 countries in Africa are affected by the virus. There are 51,239 cumulative cases on the continent, with 1,926 reported deaths and 17,471 reported recoveries. South Africa is the most affected with 7,808 cases.

Economically, the continent is projected to see a decline of 3% in 2020, but this could be better, or worse, depending on how various countries handle the crisis, it said.

South Africa is expected to see its GDP contract by 6.4%, according to finance minister, Tito Mboweni.

WHO on the coronavirus peak

WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshadiso Moeti, said that the group’s modelling shows that, in Africa, the peak of infection in any country typically happens between four to six weeks after widespread community transmission.

Across the continent, about a third of the countries are at this point – with a third currently experiencing cluster infections. The final third are controlling the infections, she said.

In South Africa, the peak of infections is projected to take place between late July and early September, after a nationwide lockdown managed to ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce infection rates far below initial projections.

South Africa is currently in the process of easing its lockdown restrictions, having introduced a ‘risk-based’ model for levels based on the spread of infection.

According to health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, while the number of cases in the country is increasing, testing is increasing, and the peak of infection has been pushed back. Prolonging the lockdown at this stage, wouldn’t make much more of a difference, he said.

“We have seen the numbers increasing. We said that many of us will get the infection. Our role has been to slow down the rate at which the infection gets to us.

“In terms of our scientific focus, we were able to push the peak. If we were to prolong the lockdown, it would not have delayed the peak substantially. We can now spot where the problems are coming from. We have learned lessons from other countries and we have an advantage,” the minister said.

WHO on easing lockdowns

Pulling back from a lockdown is “not a simple matter”, Dr Moeti said.

She said that the WHO’s position is that it should be progressive (happening in stages) and based on proven data that the rate of infection – outside of an increasing number of testing – shows a decline in the spread of the virus in a population.

Vital industries should be prioritised, and tracking and healthcare support needs to be put in place, she said. This is the model that South Africa has adopted, with the country currently in lockdown level 4.

This was echoed by African Healthcare Federation chair, Dr Amit Thakker, who said that while there is a sense of urgency for businesses to get back to work and become economically active once again, it cannot happen all at once.

However, the gradual opening up of economies needs to be done in conjunction with clear communication and guidance from government. ‘In terms of cost and prioritisation, businesses want to know if they can open up – and if not, why,” he said.

He added that businesses should also be cognisant of the fact that there will be winners and losers. Industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality will be hit hard – but sectors like healthcare and essential retail will possibly come out stronger. Other industries, like ICT will be middling, and come out okay.

“I urge businesses and boards to start having meetings about strategic intent – how to adapt to the status quo,” he said.

WHO on the smoking ban

Dr Moeti also commented on South Africa’s controversial tobacco ban, saying that while there is no position from the global health group where it recommends banning tobacco products to combat the spread of the virus, it does support countries where this has been identified as a risk.

“The WHO supports the limiting of the added risk presented by smoking,” she said. “We’re not particularly focused on smoking as a risk, but support countries that want to limit the risks among their populations, particularly around respiratory health.”

Commenting on reports that smokers might be at lower risk of contracting the virus, Dr Moeti said the WHO has not seen any scientific evidence of the claim.

The WHO moderator added that it was questionable that anyone could claim that something that is known to be detrimental to one’s health like smoking, could be in any way beneficial.

Read: Extending lockdown would not delay South Africa’s coronavirus peak by much: Mkhize

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The World Health Organisation on the coronavirus peak, ending lockdown, and the smoking ban in South Africa