In Uganda we have had no deaths from Corona, but a few days ago the Prime Minister went into self-isolation because some of his staff tested positive. This, together with some community cases, plus the continuing influx of cases from the borders, has raised fears that the Corona virus is on the increase. The Minister of Health has also been warning that Ugandans are no longer taking the virus seriously – not practicing social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks, which can prevent the transmission of the virus. And there has been social media chatter that we are lifting the lockdown just when the virus is gaining a foothold.
On a global level, countries are lifting lockdowns, but in some areas as lockdown is being relaxed there are a rising number of cases. All this can be very confusing since we were in lockdown when there were few cases and now we are opening up when we have more cases. Some people are calling for stricter measures while others are saying they will take their chances. As human beings we are programmed to respond to the nearest threat: people are being told that they might catch a virus that could kill them, but if they have no food they will take their chances on the virus in order to deal with the more imminent threat of hunger.
During the course of this pandemic statisticians have drawn models predicting the likely outcome to various scenarios. These models factor in the known risks and other elements that could contribute to the outcome. The problem is that we have never dealt with a corona virus pandemic in the past, so we are gathering data as this pandemic unfolds. Therefore some of the assumptions may well be proved wrong.
There were predictions of complete decimation on the African continent, but these models are being revised, taking into account factors such as the high number of young people compared to Europe, and the relatively small numbers of people with known risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, lung and heart disease. The lifestyle in sub-Saharan Africa also plays a part in that, although many Africans live in in crowded communities, they mainly live outdoors and the virus does not survive as well outdoors, but spreads more easily from person to person indoors in conditions of poor ventilation.
All this does not mean that Ugandans have nothing to worry about, but there is an interesting comparison to be made between the spread of TB in Europe and Africa. TB was a scourge in Northern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with hundreds of thousands of people succumbing. Later when living conditions improved in Europe TB became a thing of the past and it is now rare for someone to die of TB.
TB also struck Africa, but the total number of cases in Africa was far smaller than the numbers in Europe, perhaps because of the different climate and lifestyle here. The epidemic which did allow an up-serge of TB in Africa was HIV, because it weakened the person’s immunity.
Corona may have certain parallels with TB. Corona picks off the vulnerable – those who are old, sick, or have decreased immunity. Corona also appears to thrive in poorly ventilated crowded indoor spaces. Thus for those living in slums they should carry out very thorough hand-washing before going indoors.
I am not writing this column to give people a false sense of security or to make us complacent, but that we should take the correct measures to prevent the transmission of Corona. Corona will continue to spread but we should not panic because most people will not get severe disease since they are young.
It is unlikely that we will be able to prevent community spread since we are not an island but if we continue to take sensible measures we will slow the spread of Corona and every month that passes gets us closer to a vaccine. We should not base our African projections purely on what is happening in Europe or America, though we should continue to learn from them.
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