Africa Braces for Coronavirus, but Slowly
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia posted videos on social media of themselves washing their hands.
In Burkina Faso, the government has closed schools and universities and banned public gatherings, but has enforced the measure haphazardly, and did not apply it to religious meetings.
The celebrity pastors, Mamadou and Hortense Karambiri, and their health were the talk of the mango tree-shaded drinking spots that dot Ouagadougou. The couple leads a church of 12,000 members, and had held a service before coming down with symptoms. Their church, Bethel Israel Tabernacle, canceled its Sunday services.
But the country is not in panic mode. Not yet.
More than 5,000 people gathered for Friday prayers at Ouagadougou’s Grand Mosque, where men in face masks and latex gloves pumped disinfectant and soap into the hands of attendees.
On the weekend, thousands of men and women put on their Sunday best, climbed aboard their motorcycles, and zoomed to church.
Worshipers arriving at the central Assemblies of God church put down their tambourines to have their hands spritzed with sanitizer. The air conditioning was turned off and the windows opened. Communion was canceled.
“Don’t give in to panic, don’t give in to fear,” Rev. Jean-Baptiste Rouamba told his congregation, after a special announcement about hand washing and coughing into elbows. “Fear is another kind of sickness.”
After services, he said in an interview that he would cancel worship services if the government ordered it. But he said that his services had been more popular than ever since the outbreak, attracting up to 2,000 people.
If things got worse, he said, he would hold two Sunday services instead of one so that people could sit with a seat between them.
“If it got the Karambiri couple, nobody is safe,” he said, putting his hand on the shoulder of a young congregant who wore an airline eye mask over his mouth.
Experts have varying explanations for why coronavirus has not yet hit Africa hard: some say it is slower to spread in warmer weather, though this is disputed; others that the continent’s relatively limited international links have slowed it down.
It has not gone unnoticed on the continent that the preponderance of cases originated from Europe and the United States. Last week, after Kenya announced that the country’s first case of coronavirus was a woman who had traveled from the United States through London to Nairobi, rumors circulated on social media that Africans are immune to the virus.
“I would like to disabuse that notion,” said Mutahi Kagwe, Kenya’s minister of health, at a news conference. “The lady is an African, like you and I.”
Some warn that if and when the virus gets into crowded cities like Kinshasa, Lagos and Addis Ababa, the results will be disastrous.
Many African countries set up public health institutions in the wake of the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa in 2013, and the African Union established the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which coordinates the fight against outbreaks.
“The Ebola outbreak was a wake up call for the entire continent that our public health systems and health systems as a whole were weak,” said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa C.D.C.
However, the continent’s public health systems have never been well-funded, and experts warned that this vulnerability, along with crowded conditions and poor sanitation in cities, and the unpredictable movement of populations, could make outbreaks impossible to control.
“I don’t believe, if we have a large influx of people with the virus, we can cope,” said Dr. Tomori.
Nevertheless, in Ouagadougou in recent days, life continued almost as normal. Photographers jostled a stream of wedding parties into position in front of Ouagadougou’s fanciest swimming pool. Strawberry hawkers elbowed each other to sell their wares at car windows.
More than 500 men gathered on Saturday in Samandin, a neighborhood in the capital city, for the inauguration of a new local crime-fighting group. Seeking shade in the 104 degree heat, they sat close together on plastic chairs under tarpaulins for more than three hours. There were no hand washing facilities, hand sanitizer or disposable masks to be seen.
Presiding over the ceremony was the Malgré-Naaba of Samandin, a traditional chief, who gave up his personal name when he assumed the role.
“I think we can manage it if we practice the correct behavior,” he said. He then warmly shook the hands of a dozen supplicants.
The Malgré-Naaba acknowledged that the government had forbidden such gatherings, but said the event was an exceptional case.
“This was planned in advance,” he said. “But coronavirus — that was not.”
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda, Simon Marks from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Finbarr O’Reilly from Ouagadougou.
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