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Nigeria's first coronavirus a test for Africa

Kathleen Schuster
February 28, 2020

Health officials in Nigeria moved quickly to quarantine the first confirmed case of coronavirus. They, like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, have been gearing up for this scenario — but how prepared are they?

Man awaits passengers disembarking from flight from China
Image: Getty Images/L. Dray

As countries across the globe respond to the outbreak of the coronavirus, attention is shifting to the African continent where Nigeria this week reported the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the region.

Nigeria's health minister, Osagie Ehanire, was quick to point out that the government had been anticipating this scenario.

"I wish to assure all Nigerians that we've been beefing up our preparedness and capabilities since the first confirmation of cases in China," Ehanire said at a press conference in Lagos on Friday.

It isn't the only country to do so. Faced with two undeniable realities — frequent air traffic between Africa and China, and a weak health care infrastructure — health officials have been implementing precautionary measures across several countries for at least a month.

Read more: Will warmer weather stop the spread of the coronavirus?

African-China air travel poses concern

The first suspected case of coronavirus was reported in Kenya at the end of January. Shortly after, the World Health Organization announced it would be ramping up efforts to ready countries, especially those with "either direct links or a high volume of travel to China."

The WHO'S regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, went on to point out that 13 countries in particular, including Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, were the top priorities for screening.

According to research by Quartz, annual direct flights from China to Africa expanded from an average of less than one per day in 2010 to an average of eight per day in 2019. An increase in trade and investment  — even seeing small entrepreneurs fly to China for goods — is behind this trend.

With an eye to the coronavirus risk, screenings of passengers at airports and other ports of entry have since been implemented in many countries, according to research published this week in the medical journal The Lancet.

Read more: Africans in Wuhan - Homesick and fearful of coronavirus

Health care system decisive in battling virus

Other measures taken in recent weeks include communication campaigns, which had also been "intensified after the publication of the WHO guidelines" in January, the Lancet report went on to say.

The report noted, however, that the more significant risk facing Africa was less so the "overall risk of importation" than the ability for countries to respond and react quickly.

Coronavirus fuels racism in Africa

A 2019 assessment of global health security capacities published by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security last year showed that sub-Saharan Africa faces significant challenges in its ability to respond to health emergencies.

Not only did it label the entire African continent as "least prepared" to "treat the sick and protect health care workers," but it also noted that most countries lack the equipment and practices in infection control.

As the Lancet report noted, nearly three-fourths of African countries have influenza pandemic preparedness, but "most are outdated and considered inadequate to deal with a global pandemic."

The lessons of Ebola

While officials remain wary of the arrival of the virus, the way the first confirmed case in Nigeria was handled suggests that, at least in some parts of Africa, the lessons of Ebola have been informing the decisions made while preparing for the coronavirus.

"The Ebola outbreak taught us a lot of lessons," the director of the Nigeria Center for Disease Control, Chikwe Ihekweazu, wrote recently in an op-ed for The Conversation.

From 2014-2016, West Africa struggled to contain the deadly Ebola virus, which claimed over 11,000 lives primarily across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and killed dozens more in neighboring countries.

Indeed, the Lancet report also took note of those lessons: Many of the temperature screenings conducted at airports across Africa over the past month were made possible because equipment from the Ebola epidemic was still available.

Now, with coronavirus, African Union member states under the guidance of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been learning how to test for it. At the beginning of February, only two of its 54 member states were able to. Now at least 25 can. 

And, according to Ihekweazu, Nigeria, for its part, was even more ahead of the game, with a rapid response team in place in all of its 36 states by December.