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How Africa is preparing for the coronavirus

Jan Philipp Wilhelm with ARD and AP
January 29, 2020

Thousands of African students live in Wuhan, the center of China's coronavirus outbreak. Amid a mass quarantine, many have found themselves stranded, with little hope for evacuation.

Entrance to Addis Abeba Bole International Airport
Ethiopian authorities quarantined four students in the capital, Addis Ababa, on TuesdayImage: Getty Images/M. Tewelde

With the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus continuing to rise, concern over the deadly virus is growing across the globe. While the World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet declared an international health emergency, the US and British governments, among others, are nevertheless trying to evacuate their citizens from the crisis region around Wuhan, the center of the outbreak. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have sealed off the area.

For the nearly 5,000 Africans studying in the city, the situation is particularly stressful. Many fear they will not be able to leave China anytime soon.

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Africans in Wuhan: 'We are one family'

South African students, for instance, were told by their embassy in Beijing that they should follow their Chinese universities' instructions. Leaving the city or even the country without permission could have "far-reaching consequences."

"It's like I'm locked up in a cell," Hilal Kizwi, a Tanzanian student at Tongji Medical College in Wuhan, told the Associated Press news agency. The Tanzanian embassy assured him and fellow students that it was working on an evacuation, Kizwi said. "But I don't expect it."

He and a group of other Tanzanian doctors in Wuhan have founded a help group for African students, using social media to publish health tips and updates on the situation in the city — in Swahili. They hope to reassure the other students, who are just as trapped. "Together we are one family," the students tweeted.

DW, meanwhile, has received unconfirmed reports that food supplies for some African students in Wuhan are no longer guaranteed. According to the reports, some African embassies are trying to provide their citizens with basic necessities in the quarantined province of Hubei, where Wuhan is situated.

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Several suspected coronavirus cases in Africa

The situation in Africa is also tense. Official reports of the first suspected case of the mysterious 2019-nCoV coronavirus on the continent emerged on Sunday. The Ivory Coast Ministry of Health reported that a student returning from China might be infected with the virus. In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, authorities quarantined four students Tuesday — two had previously arrived from Wuhan with flu-like symptoms.  A suspicious case was also reported in Kenya on Tuesday.

It is only a matter of time before an infection is confirmed in Africa, said John Nkengasongo, director of the African Union's Africa Centers for Disease Control. "We have to admit that we can not be so fortunate that we do not have cases in Africa, while there are cases all over the world," Nkengasongo told reporters at a news conference in Addis Ababa on Wednesday. "It all depends on how strong our surveillance systems are."

"The surveillance systems are as good as the health systems in our member states," he added. "And we all know that we [have] very different levels of strength in the member states. So this will be a test case of how those systems have been strengthened over the years."

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Lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic?

Some countries on the continent may benefit from their recent experience with another deadly virus. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that claimed more than 10,000 lives, several countries — including Ivory Coast — developed early warning systems.

"We have activated the same systems we were using at that time," said Joseph Benie Bi Vroh, director of the state institute for public hygiene in Abidjan. Thermal imaging cameras have already been installed at the country's international airport in Abidjan, designed to check all arriving passengers for fever. "Thanks to our experience with Ebola, we are well-prepared," Benie Bi Vroh told DW.

A woman gets her temperature measured a screening station in DRC
A number of African states developed viral outbreak warning systems during the Ebola epidemicImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Wessels

Nigeria, the continent's most populous country with a population of around 200 million, is also focused on airports. "At the moment we are carrying out a visual check to find passengers with symptoms of illness," said Henrieta Yakuku, the general manger for corporate affairs at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria.

However, some members of the public feel that is not enough. "I would like to see the government show as much commitment as it did when the Ebola virus was contained," argued a passerby in the capital, Abuja.

The coronavirus is not Ebola, however, noted John Nkengasongo.

Currently, his agency is cooperating with the WHO and Chinese government experts to supply all African Union member states with the appropriate diagnostic kits. In many African countries, the virus cannot yet be diagnosed beyond a doubt — Ethiopia's Ministry of Health had to send the blood samples of the four suspected cases to South Africa. In the event of a major outbreak, valuable time could be lost.

Nafissa Amadou Amadou contributed to this report.

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