On February 27, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization Director General, issued a stern warning to world leaders. No country, he said, should work under the false assumption that the coronavirus will benignly pass by it. Tedros’ warning came as new cases were reported around the world.
Sub-Saharan Africa reported its first case in Nigeria, where an Italian contractor had returned to work in Lagos from Italy. The number of new infections around the world has also overtaken those being reported in mainland China.
The case in Nigeria was only the second in Africa, after the first one was reported in Cairo a couple of weeks ago (but has been declared negative). It underlines the multiple pathways through which the virus could find its way even into fairly isolated communities.
Deeply welded to China through trade, commercial and technical links, it might be somewhat surprising that it has taken this long before COVID-19 found its way into the continent. That Africa had appeared safe until now, is down to its limited linkages with the global community, China’s own internal measures that quarantined entire provinces and the pre-emptive actions that saw airlines suspend air services to the Asian country. Yet the twisted path of the case from China to Italy and finally Lagos is testimony to just how effective quarantining has, until now, been helpful in staving off a global COVID-19 pandemic.
To the consternation of many in East Africa, a China Southern Airlines flight arrived in Nairobi on Wednesday morning, with 239 passengers on board. Save for 30 passengers who were in transit to other African destinations, the other 200 plus were serenaded into “self-quarantine.”
Kenya and indeed Uganda’s approach of trusting arrivals to quarantine themselves for the common good is not only fallacious but is quite the opposite of what better-resourced countries such as India and Saudi Arabia have done — closing their borders to arrivals from China. The risks of Kenya’s approach were demonstrated a few weeks ago in downtown Kampala, when traders intercepted such a returnee who had breached his pledge to stay indoors for two weeks.
Kenya and Africa in general should be more vigilant. In China, people will stay indoors as ordered not because they are good-mannered. They know that the State has the surveillance systems to watch over them. China has done what it needed to do to minimise spread outside its borders. African countries should therefore not fear to be seen to be hostile to a friendly nation in enforcing measures that provide a second line of defence against further spread of COVID-19.
So far our governments have failed the test. Communication about the threat to the public, a key variable in slowing transmission, has been erratic at best. The health systems are barely prepared for any spike in demand for consumables associated with any outbreak. Instead, officials appear sold on the idea of a need to open up, to unlock stalled business. Pragmatism requires that we take stock of our vulnerability and temporarily suspend travel to and from China until such a time when the coast is clear. This is what communities have done in the past to stave off epidemics, even before the advent of modern medicine.