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Investigating the coronavirus: ICIJ African partners warn of looming threat

Across much of Africa the toll of the viral pandemic could be much worse than in Europe and North America, ICIJ partners on the continent say.

ICIJ’s mission is to reveal injustice and hold the powerful to account. Do you know of someone exploiting the coronavirus crisis, or have another story to share? We’d like to hear it. (Ici en Francais, aquí en Español)

There are not enough masks, not enough ventilators, and in some hospitals, not enough healthy nurses and doctors.

The coronavirus outbreak raging across Europe and North America has exposed planning failures and weaknesses of health systems generally considered the finest in the world. Across much of Africa, in countries with far fewer resources to begin with, the toll of the viral pandemic could be much, much worse, ICIJ partners on the continent say.

“A patient tsunami would be fatal for Senegal,” said Momar Niang, a reporter for Ouestaf in the West African nation.

Niang and two other ICIJ partners on the continent, Mohamed Kabba in Sierra Leone and Tatenda Prosper Chitagu in Zimbabwe, said their countries are ill equipped to handle a surge of patients needing intensive care – particularly the respiratory therapy the sickest COVID-19 patients require.

As of Tuesday morning, Senegal had reported 162 coronavirus cases and Madagascar 46. Zimbabwe had recorded eight. Sierra Leone just reported its first case.

Senegal, one of the most developed countries in West Africa, doesn’t have enough hospitals to begin with, Niang said. Of those that do exist, only a handful, mostly clustered in Dakar, the capital, have the expertise to care for patients with severe coronavirus symptoms.

Niang said that as cases mount, he and his colleagues have been limited to conducting interviews by phone or email. Reporting from the field, he said, “is almost impossible because the press is strictly prohibited from entering the centers where the patients are isolated.”

Sierra Leone, another West African nation, still hasn’t recovered from the Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 3,500 people in 2014 and 2015.

The government moved early to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, Kabba said. On Feb. 2, it began requiring travelers from any country with more than 50 coronavirus cases to quarantine on entering Sierra Leone, he said. It has since shut down most air travel.

The health care system, Kabba said, is not prepared for a surge of cases. The Ebola treatment centers are closed and most hospitals can’t accommodate COVID-19 patients, he said. And there has been “no transparency” from the government about how much it is spending to prepare for the pandemic, he said.

Zimbabwe is in worse shape, said Chitagu, a reporter with Newsday. “Our health system is in shambles,” he said. “The country’s first isolation center in [the capital] Harare, does not have a ventilator, oxygen, running water or even a working socket.”

Nurses don’t have protective clothing, Chitagu said. Hospitals don’t have drugs. “If there are a lot of people diagnosed with the disease, our hospitals will be overwhelmed,” he said.

Many journalists also don’t have protective gear. “As such, many are keeping their distance, dealing a blow to the nation’s access to information on the disease,” Chitagu said. “For now, many have adopted the attitude of ‘no story worth dying for.’”

Yet, tragically one has already died. The first officially recorded death caused by COVID-19 in Zimbabwe was Zororo Makamba, a 30-year-old radio and television host, and one of the country’s most prominent journalists.

If you see an investigative story about the coronavirus pandemic that deserves more attention than it is getting, send me an email (here’s my PGP key to do it securely) or direct message on twitter. I’m especially keen to read stories from outside the U.S.

ICIJ is dedicated to ensuring all reports we publish are accurate. If you believe you have found an inaccuracy let us know.