With Plenty Of Trade With China, African Countries Fear Coronavirus Spreading

Feb 10, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 5:22 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

China is Africa's most important trading partner, which is why concerns are growing about the possibility of coronavirus spreading to the continent. Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged it would be hard for Africa to deal with a large-scale outbreak.

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PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: We don't have the capacity to build hospitals in seven days, right? So we must do everything that we can within the limited resources to ensure that we keep this virus completely away.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eyder Peralta has been looking into what Africans are doing to keep the coronavirus away and the preparations that they are making should it hit. Eyder joins us from Nairobi. Hi there.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, are there already confirmed cases of coronavirus in Africa?

PERALTA: So there have been no confirmed cases, but there have been dozens of suspected cases. And right now we're still waiting on the results of five tests, but even this testing tells you a lot about the preparation here in Africa. When this coronavirus first appeared, there were only two labs on the whole continent that were capable of detecting it, so everyone was shipping samples to South Africa, Senegal and even Europe. But now there are 11 labs that are equipped to diagnose the virus, and the WHO says that most of them are in countries that see a lot of travel with China. But that's still very few labs. You're talking about 11 labs for 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned travel with China. There are a lot of flights between China and the African continent. Have countries imposed travel restrictions?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, most African airlines have canceled direct flights to and from China, and some of them have done so reluctantly because they didn't want to jeopardize their relationship with China. Ethiopian Airlines, which is the biggest airline in Africa, has decided to keep flying to five Chinese cities. And they released a statement thanking the Chinese for their, quote, "unreserved support," and they promised to stand with them always. I did speak to Michael Yao, who runs the emergency operations for the World Health Organization here on the continent, and he says that they have not called for any travel restrictions. He says that what is important is the proper screening of passengers. So the WHO has asked airports to screen passengers for fever and make sure that they fill out paperwork so that any suspected cases can be easily traced. And Ethiopian Airlines says that they are complying with all of those standards.

SHAPIRO: And what did he tell you about Africa's preparedness for an outbreak of coronavirus more broadly?

PERALTA: Well, you know, he did think it was a good sign that there are now more labs with the ability to diagnose the virus, and he said that he was pleasantly surprised at how the infrastructure that had been built for Ebola had come online very quickly for this virus. But he was also worried. Let's listen to a bit of what he told me.

MICHAEL YAO: Because severe cases tended to be taken in charge by an intensive care unit where you have to provide the respiratory equipment, and this capacity is very limited in many African city.

PERALTA: So the bottom line here, he says, is that very few health centers have the respiratory equipment they need to save critically ill coronavirus patients, and that essentially means that the death rate in Africa could be much higher.

SHAPIRO: That seems really worrisome, and I imagine it could be even worse if coronavirus hits parts of the continent that are at war, like South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

PERALTA: Yeah, no. That is the huge worry, and you don't have to look very far to see how that plays out. Just in the past year and a half, about 6,000 people have been killed by a measles outbreak in eastern Congo, and in that part of Congo, you know, there's poor sanitation, poor access to health. You have a lot of movement, a lot of people living in camps and a lot of armed groups. And there is a vaccine for measles, and the fact that that many people have died tells you just how tough a place this is to control an epidemic.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.