Last week, I travelled to Uganda and got my first taste of the heightened state of awareness around the coronavirus pandemic. As I went through Kenyan immigration, the immigration officer had donned a face mask, the solitary renegade amongst his colleagues.
When I asked him why the others weren’t wearing any, he shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something about not being ready to mess around with his health. Landing in Entebbe a few hours later brought home the seriousness with which the coronavirus threat was being taken.
An Emirates Boeing 777 had landed a few hours before that, and I found about 20 passengers of various nationalities still on the tarmac outside the arrivals terminal building. All were wearing face masks, with eyes exhausted from travel and strained by the worry of quarantine and stigma.
The Ugandan health authorities had clearly checked each and every arriving passenger and separated those from China as the originating destination.
For our Kenyan flight, we had to show our passports with the Kenyan immigration stamp, to denote that we had originated from the country next door, but first had to spray sanitiser on our hands before approaching the health officials who were doing the passport checks.
Further ahead, all the Ugandan immigration officials were wearing the face mask protection. The struggle was real, I surmised. Later the next day, I stood outside a shop at Victoria Mall in Entebbe and watched a group of Korean tourists wandering about the mall.
A white shopper walked out of the supermarket and on seeing the tourists, spat out loudly “Chinese, yuck!” If this could happen out in Entebbe, I can only imagine what any oriental people are enduring as they walk through public places around the world with humans unable to differentiate a Chinese person from Wuhan - the ground zero of the Coronavirus - from a Vietnamese or Korean.
Personal abhorrent feelings aside, the greater concern from all of us is the global economic crisis in the offing. China is the world’s factory, from electronic to motor vehicle parts that are used in various industries globally. Consequently, the international supply chains are forecasted to be severely disrupted as China is one of the largest buyers of international commodities such as iron, copper and oil.
The BBC reports that Hyundai, the South Korean motor giant for instance, has already suspended car production because of problems with the supply of parts from its operation in China.
Closer home, African countries that are producers of these commodities may start to see pressure on their local currencies emerging, due to reduced income from depressed commodity exports.
The airline industry is likely to be affected as well, as travellers begin to hold back on non-critical travel, which we saw happen after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The bigger concern however, as African countries, is whether we have the capacity to manage a contagion of the severity that Coronavirus or Ebola portends. We have already been tested on Ebola a few times and our loose and very porous borders are cause for concern as our experience with Al Shabaab related terrorist events in Kenya have demonstrated.
Pandemic readiness is something that should be a key point of discussion on the boards of public and private hospitals. Has the hospital ever undertaken scenario planning were a disease the magnitude of Ebola, SARS or Coronavirus affected the Kenyan populace? Does the hospital have sections that can easily be converted into isolation wards and are the screening kits and contagion protection clothing easily procured or in place?
Perhaps this goes beyond singular hospital planning to a wider national public health scenario planning driven by the Ministry of Health. Were a contagion of such a magnitude to occur, does the ministry know how and where makeshift hospitals can be constructed?
What I saw at the Entebbe airport with newly arriving passengers from China was a sight for significant government reflection. While we spend a lot of time and resources focusing on internal threats and challenges within our borders, the Coronavirus tragedy is one that should make both government and businesses take stock of the potential existential threats that could emerge swiftly and very suddenly. Subsequently, we should be planning for the worst and hoping for the best.