Health officials raise concerns that many African countries are ill-equipped to combat the virus
African countries are rushing to reinforce their defences against the rapidly spreading coronavirus, as health officials say many countries on the continent are ill-equipped to combat the potentially lethal disease.
There have been no verified infections in Africa to date, but porous borders, a continuing flow of travellers and poorly resourced healthcare systems have raised fears that the virus could spread rapidly if the precautions of local authorities prove inadequate.
Dr Ambrose Otau Talisuna from the World Health Organization’s Africa office said on Tuesday that the risk of an outbreak on the continent was “very, very high” and that there were significant concerns about the ability of “fragile health systems” to cope with the epidemic.
There have been 20,438 confirmed infections in China, including 425 deaths, as well as at least 185 confirmed cases in 25 countries, and two deaths outside China.
On Friday, the WHO sent out a guidance note to all countries on how to prepare for a possible outbreak, warning that speed was essential to ensure the “novel coronavirus does not overwhelm health systems”.
The organisation has identified 13 top priority countries on the continent, including much of eastern, central and southern Africa, which either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China.
All the concerned states have put in place controls at airports, using thermal cameras to detect potentially infected passengers, and have readied isolation units.
At the weekend, Air Tanzania joined five other African airlines in suspending or restricting flights to China, though Ethiopia’s national flag carrier, which carries almost half of all passengers, has maintained flights.Advertisement
Hundreds of Chinese companies have extensive operations across Africa and commercial ties between individuals have increased very significantly in recent years. There are large Chinese-origin communities in almost every major city in Africa, as well as more than 80,000 students from the continent in China itself. At least 4,000 are thought to be in Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak. A 21-year-old student from Cameroon living in Jingzhou city was reported on Tuesday to be among new cases.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the organisation, said last week.
J Stephen Morrison, the director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said the disease risked taking root if it reached certain African countries.
He warned that such a scenario could lead to a “global pandemic”.
A further worry is a shortage of protective equipment for frontline healthworkers and masks as demand soars.
Many poor African states have experience of disastrous viral outbreaks such as the Ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 between 2014 and 2016, and have reinforced their defences.
Serufusa Sekidde, a Ugandan public health specialist who was in China during the 2003 (Sars epidemic, said many countries were much better prepared than before, though there were “still lots of loopholes”.
“Communication and coordination varies from place to place. Tracking and surveillance is better in some countries, especially those with experience of Ebola and polio,” Sekidde said.
In Kenya, the ministry of health has moved to reassure citizens and has dealt rapidly with reports of suspected cases, including one at a Chinese construction company in the west of the country.
“I think, as in most developing countries, the weakness is ultimately in the entire health system: the ability to rapidly detect and then isolate the cases that occur,” said Dr Rudolf Richard Eggers, the WHO country representative in Nairobi.
“If the numbers are small, then that can probably be done reasonably efficiently. If the numbers rise like they did in Ebola in west Africa, the health systems get overwhelmed pretty quickly.”
If you have been affected or have any information, we’d like to hear from you. You can get in touch by filling in the form below, anonymously if you wish or contact us via WhatsApp by clicking here or adding the contact +44(0)7867825056. Only the Guardian can see your contributions and one of our journalists may contact you to discuss further.
Nigeria has urged anybody arriving from China to “self-isolate” for at least two weeks, even if they are not ill, and in Mozambique, the government has suspended visas for Chinese citizens and forbidden its citizens from travelling there.
Authorities in South Africa said they had set up an emergency operations centre and were monitoring passengers at 36 entry points. The South African post office has stopped sending or receiving parcels from China.
South Africa is seen as one of the highest risk countries in Africa because of the very high volume of travellers from China passing through its international airports, WHO officials told the Guardian. More than 40 alerts in the country have been investigated so far.
Though the vast and unstable Democratic Republic of Congo is among the most potentially vulnerable African states, officials have experience of dealing with repeated outbreaks of other infectious diseases, including Ebola.
Kakule Kanyere Moise, the provincial minister of Kivu, the eastern province affected by Ebola, said he would make every effort to strengthen border controls. “We are working with the Ebola response team to warn our Ebola-affected population against [the] deadly new virus,” he said.
Authorities in the DRC will also have to monitor the movement of thousands of unregistered traders who travel to and from China.
The Federation of Enterprises of Congo, a major business association, said it had suspended commercial activities involving China as a preventative measure.
Several countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola, Botswana and Ivory Coast, have signalled possible infections. But confirming coronavirus can take time, as health authorities lacking expertise have to send samples to just five labs across the continent. Three new labs have been opened in recent days.
“It is very possible that there are cases that are going on on the continent that have not been recognised,” John Nkengasong, the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.
“This strain is big. I have not seen a rapidly evolving outbreak like the one we are dealing with,” Nkengasong said.
- Additional reporting by April Zhu in Nairobi and Esdras Tsongo in Goma
As 2020 begins…
… we’re asking readers, like you, to make a new year contribution in support of the Guardian’s open, independent journalism. This has been a turbulent decade across the world – protest, populism, mass migration and the escalating climate crisis. The Guardian has been in every corner of the globe, reporting with tenacity, rigour and authority on the most critical events of our lifetimes. At a time when factual information is both scarcer and more essential than ever, we believe that each of us deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.
You’ve read 12 articles in the last four months. More people than ever before are reading and supporting our journalism, in more than 180 countries around the world. And this is only possible because we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay.
We have upheld our editorial independence in the face of the disintegration of traditional media – with social platforms giving rise to misinformation, the seemingly unstoppable rise of big tech and independent voices being squashed by commercial ownership. The Guardian’s independence means we can set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Our journalism is free from commercial and political bias – never influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This makes us different. It means we can challenge the powerful without fear and give a voice to those less heard.
None of this would have been attainable without our readers’ generosity – your financial support has meant we can keep investigating, disentangling and interrogating. It has protected our independence, which has never been so critical. We are so grateful.
As we enter a new decade, we need your support so we can keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. And that is here for the long term. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable.