More African countries are getting coronavirus testing labs but are on edge as the threat looms

At alert.
At alert.
Image: Reuters/Francis Kokoroko
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The total count of confirmed coronavirus cases globally has already surpassed 25,000—yet none of those have been recorded in Africa.

In the wake of suspected cases in Ethiopia, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, several countries have stepped up proactive measures in a bid to ensure the best chance of containing a possible outbreak. While several international airports across the continent have already introduced screening and checks, Mauritius has introduced mandatory quarantine on all passengers that have visited the Hubei province where the outbreak originated—irrespective of their nationality.

This week alone, the number of laboratories in Africa that are able to test samples of the virus has tripled with Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone joined a short list that previously only included Senegal and South Africa. It’s a crucial step in preparedness given the importance of early detection and monitoring during viral outbreaks.

The World Health Organization, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency, hopes more than half of the countries on the continent will be able to conduct sample tests by the end of the month. WHO says the 13 top priority countries who “due to their direct links or high volume of travel to China need to be particularly vigilant for the novel coronavirus.” They are Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Over the last two decades the economic links between China and countries across Africa have grown exponentially. The Asian giant has become Africa’s largest trading partner in aggregate and it is estimated there are more than a million Chinese workers and entrepreneurs on the continent. It means there are normally thousands of African and Chinese travelers going back and forth between China and the region.

Even though no case has been confirmed the global public health consensus is that many sub Saharan Africa countries are the most vulnerable to a viral outbreak like coronavirus due to inadequate health infrastructure and personnel.

“A new virus is always a challenge and most laboratories in Africa lack the key material they need to perform tests on a novel pathogen,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa in statement. “WHO is working with countries to rapidly scale-up diagnostic capacity for 2019-nCoV. It is crucial that countries in the region can detect and treat severe cases early, preventing a widespread outbreak, which could overwhelm fragile health systems.”

With an average of eight direct flights between China and African nations per day, airlines and governments are also looking to cut off travel links amid the viral outbreak. Kenya Airways, EgyptAir and RwandAir have suspended all flights to and from China indefinitely while Air Tanzania has postponed plans for its maiden flights to China. For its part, Ethiopia Airlines’ decision to maintain flights to and from China has come at the cost of intense criticism from locals.

But while authorities stay on alert to protect citizens back home, the fate of Africans in China still hangs in the air. There are nearly 5,000 African students in Hubei province at a high risk of infection and, across the rest of China, African students are struggling to find food and supplies. For their part, Kenya and Zambia have shown a willingness to repatriate  the citizens from China but it’s not a unanimously shared sentiment: Nigerian lawmakers voted against considering a motion to repatriate nationals in China earlier this week.

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