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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Warnings of worsening hunger, malaria emerge as coronavirus cases spike 40% in Africa

A volunteer from a local charity hands out meals using a metal implement to people living on the street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on April 19. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

Africa’s reported number of coronavirus cases soared by more than 40 percent in the last week, stoking concerns that the continent could become the epicenter of the pandemic at a time when hunger is rising and doctors fear a resurgence of malaria deaths.

Confirmed cases have surpassed 25,000 among Africa’s 1.3 billion people, and the death toll has exceeded 1,200.

Dozens of nations have “very, very limited” capacity for testing, said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a Thursday briefing. The lack of tests could be obscuring a larger danger.

The virus threatens to kill more than 300,000 people in Africa, according to a United Nations estimate, and plunge tens of millions more into poverty.

Leaders can still dodge worst-case scenarios, officials said, with wider testing nets and aggressive contact tracing. Most African countries have sealed or tightened their borders, banned public gatherings and closed schools, among other preventive measures.

“Are you finding the cases?” Nkengasong asked. “Are you isolating and tracking the contacts?”

But doctors, aid workers and residents say the lockdowns are blocking people from food, water and health care. For many, money comes from human interactions: cleaning houses, doing odd jobs, hawking fruit.

“It’s as if we are in a grave,” said Moussa Diallo, 22, who sells milk, sugar and other basics on a street corner in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

Customers are disappearing, he said. His perishable goods expire in May, and he doesn’t have the cash to restock if they go bad.

“I have nothing to eat — just this milk,” said Diallo, who said social distancing has disastrously slashed incomes. “It’s unthinkable.”

About 135 million people worldwide, mostly in Africa and the Middle East, are already “marching toward the brink of starvation,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, told reporters this week.

Pandemic-sparked food insecurity could nearly double that number by the end of the year.

Fallout from food scarcity is expected to be most extreme in Yemen, Syria, Congo, South Sudan and Nigeria, the organization said.

“More people will die of hunger than the coronavirus,” said Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

Nigeria’s lockdowns have put an untold number of workers out of jobs, he said. Most people in Africa’s most populous nation can’t afford to eat if they miss a day of paid labor.

The government is passing out bags of rice and other necessities, but people tell him they haven’t received anything.

“They say, ‘We don’t see these things. Where is the food? We only read about it in the news,’ ” he said.

Doctors at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore spent their Easter Sundays training nurses in Sierra Leone on how to use ventilators. (Video: Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)

The struggle to find clean water also hinders the fight against covid-19, said Canisius Kanangire, executive secretary of the African Ministers’ Council on Water in Abuja.

In densely packed urban neighborhoods, where police and soldiers enforce stay-at-home orders, poorer residents routinely lack running water at home.

“The lockdown cannot work because people have to go out for water,” Kanangire said. “They have little to drink or for hand-washing.”

Another effect of travel restrictions: Medical deliveries are stalled, health-care workers say, and people battling illnesses other than the coronavirus face longer waits.

A shift in efforts away from malaria control could fuel another fatal outbreak, a new WHO report cautioned Thursday.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 94 percent of all malaria deaths, and the victims are usually younger than 5. If prevention services, such as the distribution of mosquito nets, decline during the pandemic, the number of casualties this year could double.

“Even in times of lockdown, these essential services must be continued,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Africa director, said Thursday.

Breakdowns in some services are already happening, said Nicolas Mouly, program manager for emergency response at the Alliance for International Medical Action, an aid group that ships health-care supplies across West Africa.

Roughly two-thirds of the continent’s airports are closed, and lifesaving drugs are sitting in storage. Finding flights for them is an increasingly difficult task.

“It’s a daily fight,” he said.

Borso Tall in Dakar contributed to this report.

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