Covid-19 attack sounds the alarm for EA to set up a ‘disease army’

Saturday March 21 2020

A staff member of Kenya's Ministry of Health sprays disinfectant on a rock which people sit on to curb the spread of the Covid-19 at the Gikomba Market in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 21, 2020. PHOTO | GORDWIN ODHIAMBO | AFP


For East Africa, novel coronavirus (Covid-19) arrived a little later than in China and Europe, but in a few days, it has scattered us and our best answer has been to mostly go in hiding.

From our hiding places, however, we shouldn’t let this coronavirus crisis go to waste. It is pointing us to fruitful directions.

In the outskirts of my eastern Uganda hometown of Tororo, famed for Tororo Rock, cement, and the place with the most lightning strikes in the world (mainly due to the high concentration of iron in the ground), there used to be an organisation better known by its acronym Eatro. Its full name was daunting for the modestly educated; The East African Trypanosomiasis Research Organisation.

It studied mainly sleeping sickness, a disease that used to torment East Africa in years gone by. It’s long gone, and the site on which it used to sit is now part of a sprawling Chinese phosphates fertiliser compound.

Sleeping sickness was defeated, but there is a new generation of viruses—coronavirus, Ebola, Marburg, dengue, and others. They are very pan-African in their outlook, and have no respect for borders, therefore pooling resources and creating an army to confront them as the East African Community is the most sensible path.

It is time for East Africa to bring out a 21st century successor for Eatro—although given how fickle and deadly these viruses are, the research facility should perhaps not go back to Tororo.


However, an East African virus research institute of its own wouldn’t be adequate. We are far more interconnected with both ourselves and the world than we were in the 1960s and 1970s.

We are more urbanised, and with booming population happening at the same time with escalating climate change ravages, people are encroaching and exploiting remote forests and nooks, opening the door for strange diseases that were minding their own business to come to us.

Increased mobility and the rapid development of infrastructure, are whizzing people, goods, and diseases by in ways that weren’t happening just three decades ago.

East Africa therefore needs a regional futures organisation or institution that can look at these developments, plus what is happening in the rest of the world, and forecasts, for example, that if the snow that caps Mt Kilimanjaro continue to melt at the rate they are doing, we might end with a Loitoktok Virus or Moshi Fever in 2028, so we begin planning for it.

East Africa is dotted with institutes doing research in human and animal diseases, but they are parochial, as they’re focused nationally—Entebbe Virus Research Institute; Kenya Medical Research Institute; National Institute for Medical Research, Dar es Salaam; Rwanda Biomedical Centre, to name a few. With a slightly broader mandate, you have the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.

Collectively, with a big fund injection from states, they can seed the infrastructure for a more forward-looking, risk focused, regional disease research and mapping institutes.

The first generation of independent East African leaders saw the need. Our vision today, surely, should be larger than theirs.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site [email protected]