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12th February 2020

The coronavirus outbreak has been declared a Public Health Emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the virus might spread to countries with weak public health systems. The WHO identified 13 African nations as priorities for support, based on their close ties with China. There are measures they can take now to respond to this global emergency.

China has been Africa’s largest trading partner for over a decade and a strong driver of its development. The subsequent growing volume of travel between these regions exposes African nations to the threat of the virus. Although Africa has experience in confronting epidemics, this outbreak may exert immense pressure on strained public health systems facing many other challenges.

Many African countries are rampant with multiple zoonotic diseases and are often the kernel for emerging infectious diseases.[1] In 2018, 96 new disease outbreaks were reported across 36 African countries including cholera (20.8% of them), measles (11.5%), and yellow fever (7.3%).[2] However, the coronavirus is more infectious and has wider implications on the future of global trade, such as low demand, international price fluctuations, and periods of high economic volatility. Less resilient countries, with constrained fiscal resources, will have fewer means to tackle it, making them more vulnerable, even if they are not the epicentre of the outbreak. The detection of the virus alone will be a challenge due to limited laboratory capacity and inadequate supplies.

Therefore, the ties with China will expose Africa to both human and economic shocks. Yet, some measures can be adopted to prevent them.

Outbreak response must rely on the cornerstones of public health: trust and transparency. African countries need to establish a strong information dissemination system, whereby standard and well-founded recommendations can be shared and fear and speculation, minimised.

The laboratory and public health capacity in all countries should be strengthened to enable proactive diagnosis and containment of the spread.

Most importantly, the spill-over effects of the virus, namely on the economy, might be more significant than its epidemiological impact. To reduce economic exposure, African countries should seek to diversify their trade sources and partners. Only then can low-income economies build the fiscal and monetary buffers to resist external economic blows.

 


[1] Kemunto, N., Mogoa, E., Osoro, E. et al., (2018). Zoonotic disease research in East Africa. BMC Infectious Disease 18, 545 (2018). Available at https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-018-3443-8

[2] Mboussou F et. al., (2019). Infectious disease outbreaks in the African region: overview of events reported to the World Health Organization in 2018. Epidemiology and Infection 147, e299, 1–8. Available at https://doi.org/10.1017/S0950268819001912