Senegal's Fight Against COVID-19

By. Jon Sproule

Saint Louis, Senegal. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

It was easy for an introvert like me to isolate myself. It is just as easy to still be part of the world with the internet. Like most of my friends, I would follow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak from the safety behind a computer. I tried to imagine how COVID was affecting the rest of the world, and following the spread of the outbreak became my new hobby. Then Senegal caught my eye, as it has some interesting data regarding their infection rates. Senegal has kept their infection rates at a low, with a population of approximately 16 million people, there were less than 7000 reported cases in Senegal (July 2020 data). Out of those cases the virus killed 108 people (less than 1% mortality rate). I had to understand how Senegal was doing so well, and set to finding out the key to their success.

To create a better picture, let’s examine Senegal. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Senegal has seven physicians for every 100,000 people. The World Bank has categorized Senegal as a heavily indebted poor country with a relatively low Human Development Index (a composite statistic based on tiers of human development) along with 38 other countries across the world, making them eligible for special loans. I understood this meant that health care in Senegal must be very hard to access for many citizens with the few doctors they have. Many families would have trouble social distancing due to living in multi-occupational homes. Yet the numbers did not lie: Senegal was handling COVID-19 with great tenacity, despite having such disadvantages when compared to First World countries.

Active Cases per-capita of COVID-19 globally. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

This is largely because Senegal has had previous experiences with pandemics such as SARs, H1N1, and Ebola throughout history. The latest example is Ebola, which reemerged in West Africa in 2014 and spread across 10 countries. Approximately 28.6 thousand were infected and about half of these cases died. However, it was met by the Senegal Health Department with strong leadership, detailed planning, rapid response and support as factors that contributed to Senegal’s success including closing their borders and maintaining high vigilance for pandemic activity. According to CNN, only one man was infected and the 74 people he came into contact with were closely monitored for signs of infection.There were no further infections for the remainder of the outbreak, leaving the death toll at zero.

Even after it was declared Ebola free later that year, Senegal did not let its guard down. Officials remained vigilant and continued to ready themselves against future pandemics. A national Health Operation Center was constructed that very same year; its purpose was to be a center of required information about pandemics for effective decision making. In the following years officials ran outbreak simulations, created further emergency responses, and continued to track pandemic activity.

Fish market in Dakar, Senegal. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

This would explain Senegal’s quick response when the WHO warned countries about the severity of the virus back in January. Like many other countries they closed their borders to air traffic, put schools on hiatus, enforced curfews and enacted social distancing laws. While preventative measures were being taken, COVID made its way into the country nonetheless. However, health officials were still able to react effectively and thoroughly. Previously reserved beds for patients in hotels, hospitals, and health centers made it possible to quickly isolate potential cases and provide care and meals until it was certain that they were not carrying COVID. By responding quickly and having space set up it made it a lot easier to reduce infection rates.

Potential cases were further followed up by group contact tracing, a highly effective system developed in Ghana. Pool testing is a tracing method that tests groups of samples at a time. If a test comes back positive, then individual tests are done to isolate and identify carriers. The carriers are then quarantined for two weeks in a reserved space for two weeks with all meals provided. It is an innovative process, making it easier for the 78 different health centers in Senegal that oversee these tests.

These efforts all contribute to the results we see today. The development of events led to a minimal infection rate, allowing the government to individually address each case and offer condolences to families who lost members to the pandemic. This also allows the government to focus resources on keeping people safe from economic disaster while looking into possible treatments. These programs are still ongoing and while much is still unknown, there is great potential for success; especially with the study of traditional medicine against COVID, such as artemisia annua, a natural remedy native to Madagascar.

Like the rest of the world, Senegal still remains threatened by COVID. Officials stay prepared for worst-case scenarios, operating and reacting as new information emerges. However, it is important to acknowledge that their preparation and vigilance has given them an advantage when fighting the virus. As we are all engaged in the global battle against COVID, it would be ignorant and silly of us not to learn from their example, especially if their system is succeeding where others fail.

Doctors office in Senegal. Photo Credit: WikiCommons


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