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Senegal's silent coronavirus pushback

  • Published at 01:28 pm September 9th, 2020
Senegal coronavirus
File photo: A High School student at the Lycee Blaise Diagne washes her hands as she arrives for her first day back at school, in Dakar on June 25, 2020 AFP

Many African countries initially realized that it was difficult for them to afford expensive tests, rapid hospitalization and treatment for such a large population.

In the early days of the novel coronavirus epidemic, there was speculation as to how dire the situation would be if the virus hit poverty-stricken Africa.

There was deep concern about how countries with lower incomes and higher populations than developed countries like the United States, Britain and Italy would deal with  Covid-19 with their poor health care systems.

Many African countries initially realized that it was difficult for them to afford expensive tests, rapid hospitalization and treatment for such a large population. Thus they had no choice but to take a creative approach.

For example, Senegal has made a $1 Covid-19 testing kit. The kit detects current and previous infections through oral saliva antigens or antibodies in less than 10 minutes. 

However, in the developed countries of the world, one test of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) costs several hundred dollars.

Senegal has so far successfully controlled the coronavirus. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the country began planning sincerely in early January, with international warnings.

The government closed the border, introduced a comprehensive plan for contact tracing and provided coronavirus related healthcare to every hospital and community clinic.

And yet Senegal, with a population of 16 million, has tackled Covid-19 aggressively and, so far, effectively. More than six months into the pandemic, the country has about 14,100 cases and 293 deaths. 

Moving out on all fronts

Senegal snagged the No 2 slot in a recent analysis which focused on how 36 countries had handled the pandemic. The United States landed near the bottom: 31st of the 36 countries examined by Foreign Policy magazine, which included a mix of wealthy, middle income and developing nations. 

Senegal received strong marks for “a high degree of preparedness and a reliance on facts and science,” while the US was dinged for poor public health messaging, limited testing and other shortcomings.

When the country had its first positive case two months later, President Macky Sall immediately imposed a curfew and restricted travel among Senegal’s 14 regions. The country ramped up testing capacity quickly, creating mobile labs that could return results within 24 hours – or as quickly as two hours in some cases.

Another small but significant step: Every day, an official from the health ministry delivered a grim update, disclosing the number of new infections, how many people had been cured and how many had died.

The Global Health Security Index uses six categories to evaluate health systems in 195 countries. The yardsticks include each nation’s capacity to treat the sick and to protect health workers, its overall risk environment and its compliance with international norms, such as addressing health care gaps and guarding against biological threats. 

The index notes that the US health system is far better positioned than Senegal's to fight outbreaks. But the reality is different. 

The United States, with 6,514,376 victims and 194,037 deaths, is currently the most devastated country in the world. 

"You see Senegal moving out on all fronts: following science, acting quickly, working the communication side of the equation and then thinking about innovation," Judd Devermonth, Director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, told the US Today. 

Senegal deserves “to be in the pantheon of countries that have ... responded well to this crisis, even given its low resource base,” Devermont said. 

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