EDITORIAL: Coronavirus is spreading fast; is East Africa ready for it?

Saturday February 01 2020

This photo taken on January 28, 2020 shows a medical staff member checking a patient infected by the novel coronavirus inside an isolation ward at a hospital in Zouping in China's easter Shandong province. PHOTO | STR | AFP

By The EastAfrican

The World Health Organisation has declared the new coronavirus, first reported in China last December, as a global health emergency.

Compared to SARS—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome—which again broke out in China in late 2003, the new outbreak dubbed 2019n-CoV has demonstrated more virulence.

By midweek, the number of cases worldwide had reached 8,100 with 170 fatalities. In contrast, SARS peaked at 8,098 infections and 774 deaths worldwide over a nine-month period.

Even though it has been less fatal so far, the coronavirus is spreading at a much faster rate than SARS did, hence the high number of cases over a shorter time span.

Experts estimate that although it has demonstrated a lower fatality rate than the 9.6 per cent that succumbed to SARS, the number of people catching the disease is doubling every 7.4 days.

Cases have been reported in more than a dozen countries, many of which have responded by evacuating citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak, in China’s Wuhan City, and suspending travel to China altogether.


China has so far put up a robust response, setting up emergency isolation facilities and increasing supplies needed to treat those infected.

Not many places, especially in the developing world, East Africa included, have the capacity to mount such a massive response. East Africa’s best bet is to adopt a defensive posture by limiting its exposure to potential transmitters. Compared to 2003, East Africa is more connected to China today.

The region did not report a single case of SARS back then, possibly because of the limited contact between Africa and China at the time. Yet within days of China officially confirming the coronavirus outbreak, a suspected case was isolated on arrival in Nairobi.

Today, airlines flying between China and eastern Africa on average deploy more than 14,000 seats a week. Serving four destinations into mainland China and nearly all of Africa, Ethiopian is the market leader and hence represents the widest likely path for transmission of the virus into the continent.

It is baffling, therefore, that the Ethiopian flag carrier has been slow to follow the examples of its regional and international peers such as Kenya Airways , RwandAir and the European and American carriers that suspended flights to China.

While some countries have evacuated their citizens from China, a key variable is that they have the resources to do that and to keep suspected cases in isolation.

With groaning health systems that struggle to contain epidemics of diseases such as malaria, which we have lived with since time immemorial, it would border on criminal negligence if governments in the region do not institute measures to limit the chances of contracting the virus.

We are yet to see any concerted policy direction in the region. We are poor with barely functioning health systems. A dispersed epidemic would stretch resources and would be more difficult to contain.

Africa might be poor. But that does not mean that there is nothing we can do to preclude the worst of this epidemic.