The number of confirmed cases in west Africa is steadily rising since the first case confirmed by Nigeria on 27 February. All countries in the region are affected and under lockdowns of varying degrees, with international travel suspended and movement increasingly prohibited. Ivory Coast has the highest number of confirmed cases at 654.
Yet, across west Africa testing is very limited, with Ghana testing about 35,000 people so far and Nigeria only about 5,000. In Lagos, authorities have just begun the first community testing to determine the spread in the wider population, as so far tests have only been conducted on people who have recently travelled into the country or who have alerted authorities to their condition.
Nigeria’s government is racing to strengthen a chronically underfunded health system, with only a few hundred ICUs and ventilators for its 200 million people, according to medical unions. Nigeria spends 4% of GDP on health, which is among the lowest levels in percentage terms in Africa.
Nigeria already has an oxygen crisis, with 625,000 people dying each year due to hospitals not having enough oxygen provision. In recent weeks, strikes by doctors have further highlighted the difficulties in health services, amid complaints of unpaid salaries and poor working conditions.
The number of laboratories testing for Covid-19 are being quickly expanded and health centres built with help from the private sector. But there remain fears that even a moderate outbreak could overwhelm the system unless much more is done.
The financial toll of the lockdowns on the poor in west Africa is already becoming clear, with videos across social media of citizens pleading for food supplies and money. Lockdowns have been widespread but help is incredibly limited. Ghana has been among the more proactive countries, yet most are struggling to provide adequate supplies to more than a fraction of the people affected.
In Senegal, there are fears that more than 100,000 street children, known locally as Talibés, who beg on the streets are at a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. Many are homeless or living in squalid, congested Islamic boarding schools. Senegalese authorities say they are trying to help by providing education centres for 1,500 children.