South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Africa must co-ordinate a continental response to coronavirus and evacuate its citizens from China

Life has become very difficult in the quarantined cities of China, and especially so for Africans living and studying there on a limited budget, as food prices shoot through the roof and mobility is restricted.

I am a Ghanain studying in Wuhan, China. The city of Wuhan and surrounding cities in the Hubei province have been locked down. Wuhan is now a quarantined ghost city as public transport is shut down with most stores and supermarkets closed. The cost of some food products has increased tenfold. The shooting up of prices is making life even more difficult for the nationals of African countries currently in Wuhan.

With Wuhan declared a code red zone, Africans in the city are at high risk of contracting the deadly Covid-19. The fatality rate from this coronavirus is at 2.5% in Wuhan, the highest rate of any city affected. Also, the lockdown of the city and the fear of being infected by the virus is affecting the mental and emotional health of African citizens and students in the city.

There are over 5,000 Africans currently in Wuhan, with most of them running short of cash and other basic necessities such as food and medical supplies. This explains why most of them are demanding to be airlifted home. More than a dozen countries around the world have evacuated, or have plans to evacuate, their citizens from the virus-hit city. For instance, over 160 Moroccans were evacuated a week ago and they will be quarantined in two military hospitals for 20 days. Algeria has also flown out Algerian, Mauritanian, Tunisian and Libyan citizens.

But despite evacuation emerging as the best practice, most sub-Saharan African nations have ruled out evacuating their citizens.

Making derogatory statements barring Africans in China from returning home and criticising the demand for evacuation by Africans demonstrates an unbelievably shallow and myopic understanding of the situation. Instead, African governments and public health experts should follow regional guidelines and heed the appeal of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

The Africa CDC has appealed to African countries to allow their citizens to return home from China, including mass evacuation. The Africa CDC was established to support all African countries to improve surveillance, emergency responses, and prevention of infectious diseases. It is a specialised technical institution of the African Union (AU) serving as a platform for Member States to share knowledge and best practice, and the provision of technical assistance to each other.

The basic responsibilities of the Africa CDC also include addressing outbreaks, man-made and natural disasters, and public health events of regional and international concern.

The Africa CDC established an Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus (Afcor) on Monday, 3 February 2020. The task force was set up during a meeting between representatives of the AU and National Public Health Institutes from AU Member States. Afcor is to oversee preparedness and response to the global epidemic of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) disease.

The appeal of the Africa CDC was informed by the rejection of calls for evacuation by citizens of several African countries in Wuhan, China. For instance, several countries including Botswana, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda have been officially rejecting calls to airlift their citizens from the epicentre. The director of the Africa CDC, Dr John Nkengasong observed that “for Africans who are returning from China, we have the obligation to receive our citizens and keep them for a while and monitor them and release them into the community because as of yesterday, we started receiving reports that some countries are refusing their own citizens from coming back to the country. It cannot happen.”

Fears of the coronavirus could inflict havoc in Africa, although there is only one recorded case in Egypt. Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Botswana have all reported suspected cases. Subsequent tests, however, proved negative. Africa and China are linked in many ways. Seven out of eight airlines in Africa with flights to China have withdrawn their services on this route. Only Ethiopian Airlines is operating its regular services of 35 flights a week to five Chinese cities of Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

As concern over COVID-19 grows, the EU, for instance, has called its health ministers to emergency talks in Brussels to develop a coherent regional response. The EU Commissioner for crisis management has visited the European Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre in Brussels to ensure responses are harmonised. Instead of being driven by fear and panic, co-ordinating efforts is key for the AU and its member states. The Africa CDC should follow the example of the EU and thus play a leading role in this pan-regional co-operation and response. The efforts of the Africa CDC should be supported by the African Ministers of Health Conference and the African regional office of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

At a press conference in Geneva last week, the director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, likened the situation of the COVID-19 to the Ebola outbreak in DR Congo. The two epidemics exhibited the importance of being prepared instead of panicking. However, although many African countries have learned from the Ebola crisis and developed early warning systems, the WHO is afraid of the virus penetrating countries with weak healthcare systems. Many African countries have poor healthcare systems and are not well prepared. However, Africans returning or being evacuated back home are of no threat to their countries if the evacuation protocols outlined by the WHO and the Chinese government are followed.

The Africa CDC should, therefore, forge a timely and responsive partnership with the Chinese authorities in order to explore how they can jointly in co-operation prevent and control the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Being declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO, forces should be put together and regional and national health institutions should work together to jointly stop this epidemic from becoming a pandemic. Instead of forbidding their citizens from returning home or turning down well-intentioned requests for evacuation, the paramount priority and concern should be devoted to public health measures at the African regional and national level. DM