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18th March 2020

Will Africa be taken by surprise like at the time of the Ebola outbreak?

After being kept at bay for months, the Coronavirus has reached Africa. The first cases were identified in Egypt and since then it has spread to 30 other African countries. The presence of COVID-19 currently stretches from Somalia to Liberia, and from Algeria to South Africa. It seems that no country will be spared by the disease. The question is: is Africa braced for corona, or will it be taken by surprise as it was by the 2014 Ebola outbreak?

How is Africa responding to COVID-19?

There is no single answer to this. The level and type of response to COVID-19 differ from country to country. Most countries closed schools and banned public gatherings;  some suspended flights (incoming and outgoing); strict screening and quarantine measures were taken across the continent; in many cases, travellers from coronavirus-affected countries are banned from entry. Nigeria has put a travel ban on travellers from thirteen countries (including the US, UK, Germany and China). Two Italian passengers onboard Ethiopian Airlines were denied entry into Kenya after showing symptoms of COVID-19. This is because the concentration of cases is overwhelmingly in Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the US. In a surprising move, a few African countries have deported foreigners to stop the spread of the disease. According to The Intercept, Mauritania deported 15 Italian tourists and Tunisia deported 30 others for breaching the required quarantine.

Despite these commendable measures, the situation in some parts of the continent is quite concerning. There were long queues in various African cities to buy hand sanitiser, face masks and other hygiene products.  In many markets, those were not even available to begin with and their prices are skyrocketing. The price of food items like garlic, lemon, and ginger doubled in Addis Ababa only a few hours after the country disclosed its first confirmed case. A video circulated in Kenya’s social media of Asian citizens bullied by a crowd. In fact, more than the virus, the fears and stigma will damage the continent and beyond. Dr Tedros Adhanom, Head of the World Health Organization recently called the world to be compassionate in fighting COVID-19. He said: ‘Our greatest enemy is not the virus itself. It is fear, rumours and stigma and our greatest assets are facts, reason and solidarity.’

What lesson Africa can draw from the Ebola outbreak?

West Africa was the epicentre of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. The Mano River Union (MRU) countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were hit by almost 99% of the total Ebola cases.  Despite the image of a weak health system in the region and Africa at large, the continent saw thousands of able, committed and professional health workers fight the outbreak. Nigerian doctor, Ameyo Adadevoh, is a living example. She sacrificed her own life and curtailed a potentially wider spread of the virus in Nigeria by putting the first Ebola patient from Liberia in isolation. Dr Sheik Umar Khan, from Sierra Leone, had treated over a hundred Ebola patients before dying of the disease himself.

It is no accident that MRU was the most affected region. When Ebola surfaced, Sierra Leone and Liberia had just emerged from deadly civil wars that had devastated their economies and health systems. Guinea was also affected by the neighbouring wars. These fragile systems were poorly equipped to respond to the pandemic. The clinical management and treatment were weak, the surveillance and contact tracing, inadequate, and mistrust and poor communication were rife. And during the outbreak, Sierra Leone and Liberia could not pay the salaries of their health workers.

Other West African countries, such as Senegal and Nigeria, were able to stop Ebola immediately. Africans came together through the African Union and helped each other to stop Ebola. South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana and others deployed medical personnel and financial aid to the MRU. Indeed, the whole world mobilized through the UN Ebola response and extended financial and human assistance to the region.

Is Africa braced for COVID-19 outbreak?

Some analysts claim that Africa has drawn a crucial lesson from the recent Ebola outbreak, and this time it is prepared to stop COVID-19. Time will only tell if this is true. Whether Africa stops the corona pandemic or not, its weak economy will suffer the most. If the current situation continues, the economy, particularly the tourism and aviation sectors, will suffer significantly and may collapse. Given the high poverty and unemployment rate in the continent, COVID-19 poses a security challenge. It may have a far-reaching impact and could lead to an unprecedented political and social crisis in Africa.