WASHINGTON - African nations are preparing for what experts believe is the inevitable emergence of cases of coronavirus on the continent. With growing economic ties and increased travel between the African continent and China, health professionals say they must be ready to treat and isolate cases.
On Tuesday, Ethiopia announced it had quarantined four Ethiopian students returning from a university in Wuhan and one from Guangzhou, China. The students were stopped during a screening at the airport when it was discovered they had symptoms including sore throat and a cough.
Dr. Munir Kassa, chief of staff for Ethiopia’s Minister of Health, said the country has been determined to stay ahead of the outbreak. Since the beginning of January, the Ethiopian government has communicated with the World Health Organization and the Chinese government for status updates.
“We had several meetings and there is also an emergency center [that] has been activated. And so active surveillance and vigilance. So we have been doing active surveillance of the case for this potential threat,” he told VOA’s Horn of Africa service.
At Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been using thermal scanners to take temperatures of airline passengers arriving from the affected Chinese region, quarantining anyone sick and taking the addresses of healthy people for follow-up visits. The country has set up quarantine centers and formed a high-level task force that reports to the prime minister.
Kassa said they have screened 22,000 passengers and have sent samples from potential coronavirus cases for testing in South Africa.
“So currently in our country, we don't have anyone who has contracted this novel coronavirus and those who are suspected are under quarantine. So people can go about their daily business,” Kassa said. There is no reason to “be afraid currently.” But, he added, “because this is a global issue, particularly in China, and because we have frequent flights, people should take cautions.”
Other African countries including Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have begun screening passengers arriving from Wuhan.
In Zimbabwe, WHO representative Dr. Alex Gasasira, said the organization has not yet declared the virus to be a “public health emergency of international concern” but is advising countries on how to screen, treat, quarantine and follow-up on suspected cases. He said even countries that do not have high volumes of travelers from China are still at risk.
“As long as the country receives travelers, there's always a risk,” Gasasira said. “Because some of the people from the affected areas may travel while demonstrating symptoms. Some travel before they have any symptoms, but develop symptoms after arriving in the country.”
Gasasira said there have been no reported cases of the virus in Zimbabwe, but health officials have recorded information on people who have traveled to the affected region and are following up on them.
“The health authorities know where these travelers are going and checking them on a daily basis to ensure that they don't report symptoms and then give them the right information, if they develop symptoms, what to do,” he told VOA’s Zimbabwe service in a phone interview.
Students study in China
African travelers to China, particularly students have also been affected by the outbreak. An estimated 61,000 African students are studying in China and many now face canceled classes and a limited ability to move freely.
A Mozambican engineering student in Beijing told VOA’s Portuguese Service that it is becoming hard to get food and that many African students are considering returning home.
“We are afraid. We are afraid to go outside. We are afraid to be with other people,” said Francisco Sithoi Jr, a 22-year-old civil engineering student at Beijing University of Technology. “We are afraid even to go to the bathroom because, here in my school, we have a public bathroom. And we know that coronavirus, you can get it even from touching something that someone who has it has touched. So we are afraid almost of everything.”
A Rwandan student studying in China told VOA’s Central Africa service that classes have been canceled until at least Feb. 13, students have been instructed to stay inside their buildings and were told to buy groceries that could last for at least three weeks.
Another student from Cabo Verde studying in Wuhan said fear is growing, but people are trying to remain calm and focus on safety.
“I've been trying my best to keep myself safe from what has happened,” Wagner Perei, a computer science master’s student, told VOA’s Portuguese service. “I've been trying to stay indoors most of the time and they're just praying that everything's going to be over soon.”
This story originated in VOA's Africa Division with reporting contributions from the Horn of Africa Amharic service’s Eden Geremew, Portuguese service’s Amancio Vilanculos and Alvaro Andrade, Zimbabwe service's Gibbs Dube and Central Africa service’s Etienne Karekezi.