As coronavirus marches on, Africa must prepare itself properly to respond

A florist wearing a protective face mask arranges flowers
A florist wearing a protective face mask arranges flowers at her shop in Shanghai ahead of Valentine’s Day. Couples around China are settling for a quiet Valentine’s Day this year, with the deadly coronavirus as an unwelcome third-wheel in romantic celebrations. PHOTO | AFP  

The 1918 influenza outbreak dubbed the “Spanish Flu” was the worst pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus on where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918- 1919.

It is estimated that about 500 million or one third of the world population at the time became infected with the virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be 50 million worldwide. The flu killed more people in 24 months than HIV/Aids killed in 24 years. The heaviest death toll occurred in India where a total of 17 million people died from the virus.

The African continent was largely unscathed by the virus but Ghana reported 100,000 casualties while in British Somaliland it was estimated that seven percent of the population succumbed.

Tafare Makonnen (the future Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia) was one of the first Ethiopians to contract the flu but survived.

Having occurred during the currency of World War I the virus spread rapidly among troops and as they moved around the world in combat, the virus moved with them infecting many people along the way. To maintain morale, wartime censors in Germany, United Kingdom, France and the United States minimised reports of illness and mortality.


However, in neutral Spain, newspapers were free to report the effects of the epidemic (such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XII). These stories gave the false impression that Spain was the worst hit thereby giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname “Spanish Flu”.

Some historians have labelled the Spanish Flu a “forgotten pandemic” because after the end of the war it began to fade away from public awareness. Limited media coverage on the pandemic itself and more focus on the war arena led people to look at death from the flu side by side with death from the war.

It was not until decades later that awareness was raised with the arrival of news about bird flu and other pandemics in the 1990s and 2000s.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which is caused by a coronavirus, killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in an outbreak that started in China in 2003. Once again, Africa was largely unaffected save for one case in South Africa.

The latest outbreak of the coronavirus which started in Wuhan city of south China in December 2019 is spreading at an alarming rate. It has already claimed over 1,000 lives with more than 40,000 having been infected. At least 25 countries have confirmed cases and several nations have evacuated their citizens from China. Africa has so far been spared despite its increasingly intimate links with China.

We have been told often times that Africa is not ready for a massive outbreak of coronavirus because we do not have leadership and health structures that are developed enough to face modern challenges. Strangely enough, Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s biggest airline, is still running flights from China.

A cynical Western journalist has even suggested that the continent’s hot and humid climate could protect it from the coronavirus more than its governments ever could. While I agree that our health systems and general disaster preparedness are well below standards in the developed nations, some African countries are more prepared than others.

In East and Central Africa, we have been managing the Ebola virus since the early 1980s. The largest outbreak of Ebola to date occurred in Nigeria between December 2013 and January 2016 with 28,646 cases and 11,323 deaths. It was contained in March 2016 largely by Nigerian authorities.

The coronavirus is hitting China’s exports and disrupting global supply chains. The world’s second largest economy has been at a near- standstill for two weeks after the government extended the lunar new year holiday to contain the outbreak.

Analysts estimate that Chinese growth will be 1.5 percent lower in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 while global growth is expected to be 0.5percent lower.

Africa’s main exports to China consist of raw materials and minerals. Is this an opportunity to review the terms of trade to secure more value addition up the supply chain with China? Can we renegotiate our large stock of expensive Chinese debt?

This is also an opportunity to review our health systems and disaster preparedness and invest in technology and human resources to bring us up to world class.

It is unfortunate that the Chinese are suffering from the plight that has befallen them. As the world grapples with how to deal with the potential pandemic, the full impact of it will be felt for months to come. The question is, how do we plan to respond to it as a country.