By Patrick Mbullo
On January 7th, 2020, the Peoples Republic of China announced the outbreak of a deadly virus known as Corona. This was after a suspected case of pneumonia was reported in Wuhan City, a major transport hub in Hubei Province of China. Human Coronaviruses (HCoV) are the leading cause of respiratory illness, including SARS-HCoV, pneumonia, hepatitis and many others. The HCoV is said to be responsible for over 30% of common colds around the world. Research interest in Coronavirus only become vibrant after the 2003 outbreak of SARS in China. To date over 16 strains of coronaviruses with complete genome sequence. They are mostly associated with bats and birds, suggesting a zoonotic relationship. Because of its complex diversity, the HCoV is among the world’s deadliest viruses – Ebola, Laser fever, SARs – facing mankind today.
Despite the fact that most viral diseases are difficult to manage and respond poorly to treatment, in an outbreak, their management can only get worse. Whereas disease surveillance is underdeveloped and diagnosis is poor in most African countries, health infrastructure, technology, workforce and accessibility remain a problem, especially sub-Saharan Africa. There is no doubt that most African countries have very highly trained virologists. However, research labs are not well equipped to identify the molecular biology and epidemiology of these viruses, making the availability of information about these viruses difficult.
Infrastructures, technology, and trained workforce are key to responding to disease outbreaks. Where health systems are barely functional and lack these three elements, the impact of any small epidemic can be disastrous. For example, the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, over 28,000 cases were detected, with Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, bearing the brunt of the epidemic.
When such outbreaks occur, the first response from international community, especially rich country, is travel alert. Often, these travel alerts place boarder restrictions barring travelers from the affected countries from crossing their borders, while their own citizens receive preferential treatment such as specialist medical attention and airlifts out of the affected countries. With the outbreak of Coronavirus in China, one would expect African countries to impose strict travel rules for foreigners, especially from Asia, Europe and North America. Ironically, these visitors still get away with very little screening, if any, within African boarders. No quarantine stations like the ones witnessed in the United States during Ebola outbreak, have been set up in the African countries, especially for foreigners from the powerful countries.
In the case of previous Ebola outbreaks, Western countries have been quick to blame cultural practices without looking at the public health infrastructure and other health systems on the ground. The Coronavirus in China, the narrative culture has been carefully omitted. Just like African countries, Chinese for a long time have cherished funeral ceremonies as a way of sending of the dead and invested heavily in their funerals. To date, Qingming Festival remain popular across the populous country.
In this article however, my intention is not to engage in the politics and debates around culture and its role in the spread of viruses. Instead, the question I pose and examine is “China’s Coronavirus: What it might mean to African countries.
Many African countries, have in the recent past, established vibrant bilateral relationship and ties with China. In return, the Sino giant has increased its trade and presence in the continent. Following the improved trade with China, most African countries such as Kenya have sought to improve human and capital movements with China and their borders. Kenya for example launched direct flights from Nairobi to Guangzhou, the third largest city in China. These changes also came with friendly immigration rules allowing Chinese traders flexibility for multiple entry into African countries.
With laxed border rules and poor disease surveillance, poor public health infrastructure and technology, a breakout of coronavirus in Kenya for example would be catastrophic. First, a large population in Kenya, like many other countries battling with HIV pandemic, have compromised immunity. Even though HIV care and treatment has been quite effective in these countries, there is no doubt that anything that demands a lot from the body will further overburdened the immune system. Coupled with other infectious diseases such as malaria, and tuberculosis, the population response to a new virus is likely to be poor and slow. No doubt, causalities would be daunting in case of an outbreak.
Secondly, the state of public health infrastructure in most African countries are at their worst. With little or no investment in health sector and wanton corruption, health care systems have been crippled. In most public health facilities, medical equipment is either outdated, non-functional or totally not available. In addition, basic supplies such as protective gloves, biohazard measures preventive, and curative medicine are not easy to come by in most hospitals. These challenges would make it impossible cumbersome to manage an epidemic. In fact, this sorry and pathetic state of health systems would only exacerbate such an epidemic.
Thirdly, health care in most of these countries still remain by inaccessible to millions of people. In its attempt to rollout universal health coverage, Kenya has instead health care access even more expensive. Labor related strikes put doctors and nurses out of public hospital even as long queues continue to be experienced in health faculties. With poorly paid and fatigued health force, basic preventive services have been compromised. These conditions would facilitate the spread of the virus.
Lastly, we should not be shy to think of the extreme possibilities of bioweapon agenda and its likely dangers to African countries. In the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, what has never been discussed openly is the role western scientists might have played in the outbreak, and management of Ebola virus. It is something that no one is willing to talk about in the coronavirus outbreak. However, were such a weapon (bioweapon) be developed, the likely testing ground would be African countries. Therefore, for African countries to avert this kind of a catastrophe, they too must impose strict boarder rules to foreigners from affluent countries. The focus should not be on severing international relations but should focus on protecting their own citizen. Above all African leaders must take the responsibility to invest in technology and research.
As China deals with the crisis in Wuhan, it should critically think about global responsibility of protecting the rest of the world from the virus. Cover-up of the magnitude of the problem will not only hinder response but will greatly harm the rest of the world.
Patrick Mbullo is a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA. For contact: email@example.com