African countries are scrambling to avert an outbreak of the rapidly spreading coronavirus strain, as health officials warn that the poorest countries are ill-equipped to combat the deadly disease.
Across the continent, governments have stationed nurses at airports to check for feverish passengers and have suspended Chinese entry visas, while ordinary people grow increasingly nervous.
There have been no verified infections in Africa to date, but deep trade links with China and often overstretched healthcare systems are raising concerns about the capacity to respond to an outbreak.
Health workers get ready to screen arriving passengers with a thermal scanner at the Blaise Diagne International Airport in Dakar, on January 30, 2020, following a SARS-like virus outbreak in China. – A number of airlines say they are halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. The epidemic has killed 170 people, infected more than 7,000 worldwide including at least 80 outside China, Macau and Hong Kong, and spread to some 15 countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday declared a global emergency as coronavirus infections spread, after initially downplaying the threat.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the disease risked taking root if it reaches certain African countries.
He warned that such a scenario could usher in a “global pandemic”.
Several poor African states have recently suffered disastrous viral outbreaks — and they’re keenly aware of the threat.
The Ebola virus raged through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in 2014-2016, killing about 11,300 people.
Mosoka Fallah, the head of Liberia’s public health institute, told lawmakers this week that the rapid spread of the new coronavirus was “catastrophic”.
“Steps must be taken as early as possible to prevent it from entering here,” he said, adding that the government had ramped up airport checks.
Anciao Fabiao Paulo, an Angolan student, told AFP that “it’s over” if coronavirus reaches his country.
“Our health system is vulnerable and there are no good specialists. With malaria, people are already dropping like flies,” he said.
Coronavirus has killed more than 200 people in China — where it emerged in the central city of Wuhan — and infected thousands more.