Why Ethiopia Holds the key to Africa’s fight against Coronavirus
The recent outbreak of the coronavirus which has claimed 106 lives in China and hospitalised nearly 5000 people worldwide has put the world on edge. Although the majority of these cases are in China, as fears of more contamination spreads and hysteria builds, many countries are on alert and are exploring evacuating their citizens from locked-down Wuhan.
With fears mounting daily, many across the African continent have been wondering what steps governments throughout the region are taking to protect their citizens from contact with the virus, and how effective these steps will be. These concerns have become all the more intensified since both Cote D’Ivoire and Kenya have announced suspected cases on their shores. And now, officials from the African nation housing the airport considered by some to be the first line of defence against the spread of the coronavirus has announced 3 suspected cases in students who recently returned from Wuhan.
A Growing relationship
The burgeoning ties between Africa and China has led to a 630% jump in air traffic between China and Africa in the last decade alone.
Most of the expansion was made by Africa’s biggest carrier – Ethiopian Airlines. During the 2000s Ethiopian Airlines did not have a single direct Africa-China route. Now, it is the leading and largest operator with almost 2,616 annual flights. The airline flies daily to China, with flights going to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, and three times a week to Chengdu. Ethiopian Airlines flies to 61 destinations in Africa, thereby offering a quick link from China to the entire African continent. With the Ivory Coast testing the first suspected person for coronavirus in Africa and Kenya recently announcing a suspected case, fear has been mounting that air travel may be the virus’ path of arrival to the continent.
Mr Takele Uma Banti, the acting Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa, announced on Twitter that Bole International Airport with cooperation with Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI), Addis Ababa Public Health Emergency Management is onboard to screen for the coronavirus. He also stated that they had prepared an isolation centre equipped to accommodate passengers.
While this decision is a commendable step that will help identify anyone travelling during the period of communicability, it will not help tackle the issue of anyone flying during the latent and incubation period. National Health Minister of China, Mr Ma Xiaowei stated at a press briefing on January 26 that the virus can spread during the incubation period which is the time elapsed between exposure to a pathogenic organism, a chemical, or radiation, and when symptoms and signs are first apparent. This news has sparked fears that the virus might be passed on with more ease than previously identified, and many fear that an unknowingly infected person may board a flight bound to the African continent infecting numerous others.
The outbreak has caught the attention of the World Health Organisation who have since called it a “crisis” in China but are yet to declare it an international health emergency.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general, had travelled to Beijing as of Sunday the 26th of January to hold talks with the government and health officials on the virus. Adhanom, who calls Ethiopia his second home, stated that he “would like to understand the latest development and strengthen our partnership with China in providing further protection against the outbreak”. But how these talks will play out and how they will help protect the African continent from the virus is yet to be seen.
On the 28th of January, a meeting at the Africa Centre for Disease Control culminated in Director John Nkengasong officially activating the Institution’s incident management system ‘to kick-start Africa’s preparedness’.
The previous day, the Gates Foundation announced that they would be committing $10 Million in emergency funds to help frontline responders in China and Africa accelerate their efforts to contain the global spread of the virus.
In the official press release, the gates foundation stated that “the foundation is also immediately committing $5 million to assist the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in scaling up public health measures against 2019-nCoV among African Union member states. These measures will include technical support to implement the screening and treatment of suspected cases, laboratory confirmation of 2019-nCoV diagnoses and the safe isolation and care of identified cases”. Some, such as scholar Winslow Robertson have issued concerns that not enough African partners are included in the list of partners set to see this funding, meanwhile, others have expressed the need for funds to be allocated to Africans based in China also, as they are currently at greatest risk of contracting the virus.
For now, Africans both at home and abroad are holding their breath to see if the suspected cases in 3 of the continent’s 54 nations do in fact turn out to be Coronavirus. It remains to be seen whether current and planned measures at Addis Ababa Bole airport will be sufficient to manage the threat posed by this deadly virus.
Saron Tamerat is an Ethiopian who has lived in Guangzhou, China for 5 years. A self-proclaimed book worm; she has a degree in International Economics and Trade and is interested in the burgeoning Sino-Africa relations. She has previously served as the president of the African Student Association at the South China University of Technology and has worked with the African-Guangdong Business Association.