African countries debate repatriating citizens from China as coronavirus fears mount

Africa getting ready.
Africa getting ready.
Image: REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As recorded novel coronavirus infections top 70,000 mainly in China, African governments are taking new measures to support their citizens studying and working in the country.

With over 4,600 African students studying in Wuhan China’s Hubei province, only two have been evacuated, to date. The two students, from Seychelles, were transferred from Wuhan “with the assistance of the French authorities” on Feb. 2, according to a joint press communique. The students are currently in quarantine in France, and will be released to Seychelles after a fourteen-day period of observation.

Though Seychelles was able to garner support for evacuation through its close ties with France and the European Union, other African governments are still struggling with the possibility of bringing students home.

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta announced plans to evacuate Kenyan students from Wuhan in Washington DC earlier this month after pleas from Kenyan students went viral on social media.  Days later, Kenya’s foreign affairs principal secretary Macharia Kamau disputed Kenyatta’s statement claiming that the students are “safe where they are.”

After a failed attempt to airlift 105 Ugandan students from Wuhan, Uganda’s government has also made the decision to keep its students in China. In lieu of evacuation, the country’s government has opted to provide $61,000 to support stranded citizens.

‘‘It is safe to keep those persons in Wuhan city there because the city is under lock down. Uganda does not have specialized capacity to handle coronavirus. The country is already stressed with outbreaks,’ Ugandan health minister Ruth Aceng said in a statement.

Concerns over the ability of Africa’s healthcare systems to treat possible cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are not unfounded. Last decade, influenza and the Ebola epidemic plagued West Africa. Though a number of countries were able to strengthen their capacity for handling epidemics and detecting deadly illnesses, Micheal Yao, the WHO’s emergency operations programme manager for Africa, says “some countries still need support. Experts will urgently be deployed to support countries at high risk.”

Egypt is the only African country with a confirmed case of coronavirus so far. The affected 33-year old foreign national is currently being quarantined, treated and is in stable condition. The 17 people the patient was in contact with are also being monitored under quarantine for fourteen days.

In anticipation of a possible outbreak in Africa, the Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention has supplied training and test kits to 16 African countries, including Egypt, with additional test kits supplied to Egypt by the WHO.

“This week, we are conducting training in Nairobi, Kenya, for 40 participants from nine countries, including Egypt, on enhancing detection and investigation of COVID-19 at points-of-entry. The training is co-facilitated by Africa CDC, WHO, and the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO). Two airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airlines, are also represented in the training.” wrote Dr John Nkengasong, Director for Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on the Africa CDC website.

Despite Africa’s scramble to prepare for coronavirus cases, some governments are urging African nations to leave their students where they are.

“The price we had to pay was to cut off transport to prevent the spread of the virus. It was not easy. More than a hundred hotels in Wuhan have opened their doors, free of charge, to host nurses and South Africans in that city. It is best for South Africans who are in Wuhan – to stay there and not return home for now.” said China’s Ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian.

But, African students in Wuhan and beyond have been staunch in their requests to be evacuated. Last week, Kopo Oromeng, a Botswana MS student at the University of Delaware started a petition to “Evacuate African Students from Wuhan, Hubei

“What does the AU stand for, if it cannot stand for the lives of black young students at a time of need? The Africa CDC, which now has the financial means, after receiving a $5 million pledge from the Gates Foundation, has to arrange post-evacuation facilities and medical supplies.” Oromeng said in her petition.

“Our African students in Wuhan do not deserve to be stranded for so long. We are their voice in this tragedy.” commented a signee.To date the petition has 145 signatures.

Outside of Wuhan, Africans report an intensification of the virus, but are learning how to cope.

In Guangzhou, the capital and manufacturing center of China’s Guangdong province with a large African migrant community, a Ugandan working in logistics and shipping told Quartz though he has not been contacted by his government he “still feel[s] safe” because of the restrictions the municipal government has put on public gathering and public spaces.

The recent recovery of the first African to contract coronavirus, a Cameroonian student “encouraged many Africans to feel safe”.

On Feb. 3, Yangtze University, a University in China’s Hubei province announced that an African student from Cameroon had contracted coronavirus.  Kem Senou Pavel Darly, 21 years old, was treated for 13 days in isolation at a hospital in China. Pavel is now back in good health and is under a 14 day quarantine in his university dormitory.

“No matter what happens I don’t want to take the sickness back to Africa,” Pavel told the BBC.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox