Hours before the Pasteur Institute in Dakar confirmed Senegal’s first case of COVID-19 on March 2, 2020, President Macky Sall was 1 kilometer away at the Presidential Palace, meeting with health officials to complete the country’s contingency plan.
The government began forming those plans in January 2020, before the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared an international public health emergency.
Senegal was prepared.
The West African nation has earned international praise for its pandemic response, the foundation of which was laid years before.
“Senegal is doing quite well,” Michel Yao, emergency operations manager for WHO Africa, told the U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR) in 2020. “We were impressed at the beginning at the full engagement and commitment by the head of state.”
On March 22, 2020, Senegal had 62 confirmed cases, which was among the most on the continent. Sall quickly implemented a dusk-to-dawn curfew, restricted travel among the country’s 14 regions, halted international flights, put schools on pause, and closed restaurants and mosques.
Lessons learned from a single confirmed case of Ebola in 2014 helped Senegal spring into action.
“What we advised countries to have in place following Ebola in West Africa was to have an operations center, to have in one place the required information for effective decision-making,” Yao said. “It’s quite an important tool to control the crisis, and this was a good plan from Senegal to have this structure.”
Officials created the Health Emergency Operations Center (identified by its French acronym, COUS) in December 2014. Since then, it has worked with the Ministry of Health, the WHO, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.
Led by its director, Dr. Abdoulaye Bousso, COUS spent years conducting simulations of outbreaks and creating extensive epidemic response plans.
When COVID-19 struck, a key initiative was to give hospital or health center beds to anyone who tested positive — with or without symptoms — and quarantine all contacts in hotel rooms with meals provided. The idea was to keep patients away from family members, who often live together in Senegal.
“We saw at the beginning that if you do that, we can very rapidly stop the transmission,” Bousso told NPR.
The Health Ministry delivered clear, fact-based updates every morning. In fact, Senegal was recognized as the second-highest-rated country in by Foreign Policy magazine’s global response index. Senegal got the highest possible scores for public health directives and communication.
In a country of more than 16 million people, there have been 38,705 cases and 1,051 deaths, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention as of March 30, 2021.
Senegal is “one of the model countries in terms of implementing COVID-19 prevention measures, and it has reaped the benefits,” WHO official Nsenga Ngoy said in a virtual news conference in November 2020.
The country also has invested heavily in improving the infrastructure of a health care system that was inadequate and easily overwhelmed. The WHO estimates there are seven physicians for every 100,000 people.
In 2017, Senegal agreed to a $176 million deal with Paris-based construction company Ellipse Projects to build four high-tech hospitals with 750 beds in the towns of Kaffrine, Kedougou, Sedhiou and Touba.
The facilities were expected to open in 2021.
At the peak of the first wave in May 2020, Ellipse donated more than $165,000 to Senegal’s Ministry of Health in a show of solidarity.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world, and Senegal is no exception, in an unprecedented health and economic crisis,” CEO Olivier Picard said to Senegalese newspaper Le Quotidien. “It is essential that the private sector support in a coordinated manner the efforts of the state.”