China’s influence across the globe waxes as American influence wanes. I’ve been tracking that and posting on China’s growing influence, particularly in Africa. But we are now witnessing a down-side to that. China is exporting a world health crisis.
Mr. and Mrs. Scriber are watching this one closely - WHO ramps up preparedness for novel coronavirus in the African region - because we are scheduled to travel in two of those countries identified by WHO as “top priority.”
WHO has identified 13 top priority countries (Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia) which either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China. Active screening at airports has been established in a majority of these countries and while they will be WHO first areas of focus, the organization will support all countries in the region in their preparation efforts.
Here is the current situation: Africa, Intertwined With China, Fears Coronavirus Outbreak. There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Africa yet, but with steady traffic to and from China, experts worry that the epidemic could overrun already-strained health systems.
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — As the 9 a.m. flight from Dubai arrived at the international airport in Ethiopia’s capital on Wednesday, four government health specialists in face masks and protective glasses worked their way to the line of incoming passengers to check their passports.
The health specialists found what they were looking for — two passengers who had just returned from China — and pulled them aside to check their temperatures to see if they might have been infected by the coronavirus.
The two passengers had normal temperatures, so were allowed to continue on their way, a government policy that does not account for an incubation period that is up to 14 days.
As the coronavirus wreaks havoc in China and has spread to countries around the world, experts are increasingly concerned that Africa is particularly vulnerable.
The continent’s health system is already fragile. It has few facilities even to test for the virus. Its doctors are already straining to contain deadly outbreaks of other diseases, like malaria, measles and Ebola.
And on top of that, Africa has large numbers of Chinese workers, many now returning to the continent after visits to China for the Lunar New Year. Meanwhile, some of the 81,000 African students who have been studying in China are now heading home. But while more and more countries tighten their controls over travel with China, Ethiopia has kept the door open and the planes flying.
If the coronavirus hits Africa, said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, “it will be massive.”
There have been 32 suspected cases of coronavirus in Africa, but none tested positive for the virus, according to the Africa C.D.C. But until this week, only two countries on the continent — South Africa and Senegal — had laboratories capable of testing for the coronavirus.
Most hospitals on the continent, other than large ones in capitals or regional seats, do not have the intensive care units that patients diagnosed with the coronavirus might require, experts say.
“If this happens in Africa it will be a huge struggle because the health services are quite overstretched dealing with ongoing diseases like malaria and measles and the current Ebola outbreak,” said Michel Yao, the World Health Organization’s Emergency Operations Program Manager for Africa.
Africa was largely spared in 2002 and 2003 when the SARS virus, which also originated in China, spread around the world, killing nearly 800 people and infecting more than 8,000, mostly in China and Hong Kong. Africa reported only one case, in South Africa.
But the risk is far greater now, experts say. China and Africa have become intertwined in the last two decades as China has expanded its political, economic, and military ties to Africa, funding large infrastructure projects and pledging tens of billions of dollars in investments and loans.
Chinese citizens have flocked to Africa, working in industries ranging from manufacturing and technology to health care and construction. Estimates of how many Chinese are now living in Africa range from about 200,000 to as many as two million.
Air travel between China and Africa has increased exponentially in the last decade alone, from one flight a day to an average of eight direct flights.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest and most profitable carrier, is the main gateway between China and Africa, shuttling up to 1,500 passengers each day between Addis Ababa and China on dozens of weekly flights. The airline has a center in the Addis Ababa airport to help Chinese travelers easily process their visas to dozens of African states. The Ethiopian airport itself was built in part with funding from China.
“Unfortunately, many disease surveillance systems throughout African countries are weak and most of the continent lacks diagnostic capability,” said Dr. Ngozi Erondu, associate fellow in the Global Health Program at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London. “Identifying most cases and controlling the outbreak could be difficult, especially in the poorest and most resource-constrained countries.”
The World Health Organization is stepping up aid to 13 African countries that have direct links or a high volume of travel to China, working to improve early detection of cases and speed samples to labs that can do the tests. The agency has said it will need $675 million through April, primarily to assist poor countries in Africa and Asia with weak public health systems. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Wednesday committed $100 million to fight the virus, partly for at-risk populations in Africa.