China wants to help Africa fight coronavirus but not everyone is welcoming

A medical donation from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation to Africa for coronavirus testing arrives at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Mar. 22.
A medical donation from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation to Africa for coronavirus testing arrives at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Mar. 22.
Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
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With the worst of the coronavirus behind it now, China has been ramping up its international assistance to other countries so they can also contain the virus. It has been stepping up to support African countries, especially now, as the United States and Europe concentrate on their own massive outbreaks.

Africa has confirmed over 10,000 cases of Covid-19 in 52 countries. While the figures are still relatively low compared to with the continent’s population, there are concerns about the ability of health systems to cope if case numbers rise at a rapid rate.

This week, 500 ventilators and 200,000 personal protective equipment will arrive in Ethiopia to be distributed to African countries. It is the second massive donation to be made by the billionaire Chinese tech founder Jack Ma. In March, he donated over 1 million test kits and 600,000 masks to Africa.

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, both Chinese government support and Chinese companies operating on the continent, mobilized by their embassies, have embarked on a donation blitz of cash, PPE and testing kits. 

“There is a desperate need for the medical protective equipment and gear to support public health workers in Africa and China’s donations fill a part of that need at a time when not many other people have been stepping up to help,” says Eric Olander, managing editor of The China Africa Project

China has made clear it wants to help but even in Africa where it has cultivated deep ties, that help is viewed suspiciously and in some cases even unwelcome.

Nigeria uproar

There has been an uproar in Nigeria where the doctors’ association has threatened to review their “participation in the fight against COVID-19” if a government decision to invite a Chinese medical team is not rescinded.

The Nigerian government argues the team of doctors are only coming to share their expertise but not to take over the care of patients.

However, in a scathing rejection of the proposed plans, the Nigerian Medical Association said inviting foreign doctors presented a national security concern and “demeans their sacrifices so far in this pandemic.” 

Their statement (along with those of other civil society groups) also suggested a link between the arrival of Chinese doctors in Italy and an increase in cases there—even though the most plausible reason by scientists was the virus reaching its natural peak in Italy.

The controversy comes as rumors have spread on social media in Nigeria and other countries that medical equipment received from China have been contaminated with the coronavirus. In Ghana, false information about Chinese-made medication that can cause deaths has also been widely shared on WhatsApp.

“These kinds of memes that now circulate widely on social media are definitely having an impact on how some people look at Chinese medical assistance in Africa…[However] I would caution that those sentiments are not necessarily shared evenly everywhere on a continent as large and diverse as Africa,” Olander says.

Indeed, a medical team from China has been welcomed in Algeria, which has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in the WHO’s Africa region.

Beijing’s “coronavirus diplomacy” humanitarian effort is being seen as part of a broader strategy to help it deflate some of the blame and divert attention from the origin story. Members of the current US administration and right-wing media have frequently called the coronavirus “Chinese virus”, which has roundly been condemned as racist. 

“China wants the focus of the story to be how the Chinese successfully tamed the virus at home and then went on to help other countries, particularly in developing regions like Africa, to do the same,” says Olander. “It also helps to build national pride at home that China is emerging as a high profile provider of humanitarian aid that was once led predominantly by the United States.”

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