Health experts fear where the coronavirus may be headed next, potentially putting millions of people at risk with global consequences. Picture: News Corp Australia
Health experts fear where the coronavirus may be headed next, potentially putting millions of people at risk with global consequences. Picture: News Corp Australia

Region where coronavirus could be unstoppable

Health experts fear the deadly coronavirus could soon make its way to Africa and put millions of lives at risk due to poor medical facilities.

Earlier this month the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, based on fears that poorer regions would not be able to cope with the outbreak.

Global health authorities are increasingly worried about the threat to the African continent where an estimated one million Chinese people now live, as some health workers on the ground warn they are not ready to handle an outbreak.

The death toll from coronavirus has reached 1114 as the number of people infected hits over 45,000.

'IT CAN PARALYSE THE WHOLE COMMUNITY'

The virus which has spread through much of China has yet to be confirmed in any of Africa's 54 countries, but there have been dozens of suspected infections.

Countries in Africa are racing to take precautions as hundreds of travellers arrive from China every day. Safeguards include stronger surveillance at ports of entry and improved quarantine and testing measures across the continent, home to 1.2 billion people and some of the world's weakest systems for detecting and treating disease.

But the effort has been complicated by a critical shortage of testing kits and numerous illnesses that display symptoms similar to the flu-like virus.

"The problem is, even if it's mild, it can paralyse the whole community," said Dr Michel Yao, emergency operations manager in Africa for WHO.

The University of Sydney's Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott said his "biggest concern" would be if the virus spread to Africa, due to its lack of high-quality medical facilities.

"The big concern is if the virus makes its way to Africa, given the limited laboratory capacity and fairly poor health systems there," he told news.com.au last week. "It would then become endemic.

"The worst-case scenario is the virus continues to mutate and become more and more severe, and then go on to spread internationally."

 

The coronavirus has yet to be diagnosed in Africa, but global health authorities are increasingly worried about the threat as health workers on the ground warn they are not ready to handle an outbreak. Picture: Emmanuel Mwiche/AP
The coronavirus has yet to be diagnosed in Africa, but global health authorities are increasingly worried about the threat as health workers on the ground warn they are not ready to handle an outbreak. Picture: Emmanuel Mwiche/AP

Africa is already straining to contain other deadly outbreaks like malaria, measles and ebola.

Only two countries on the whole continent - South Africa and Senegal - have laboratories capable of testing for the coronavirus.

President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta said it would be hard for Africa to deal with a large-scale outbreak.

"We don't have the capacity to build hospitals in seven days, right? So we must do everything that we can within the limited resources to ensure that we keep this virus completely away," he said.

Africa is no stranger to infectious diseases, having only a few years ago dealt with the ebola outbreak, which infected almost 30,000 people and killed a staggering 11,325.

Part of why ebola was so deadly was due to a lack of health facilities, as many countries in Africa don't have the healthcare system to handle a massive epidemic.

But a worrying difference between ebola and the coronavirus is the screening process. While ebola only becomes infectious when symptoms have showed, the coronavirus can be transferred from person to person before symptoms are present.

Take Nigeria, a country with one of the lowest electrification rates in the world. The country is plagued with constant power cuts and blackouts, making it virtually impossible to run a sustained modern healthcare system. According to its President Muhammadu Buhari, the country loses $1.64 billion a year from Nigerians travelling to other countries for medical tourism.

If a coronavirus epidemic was to break out there, experts fear it could be uncontainable given how easy it is to spread the virus.

ETHIOPIAN AIRLINES' MOVE SPARKS CONCERN

Several African airlines, including Kenya Airways and Rwandair, have cancelled direct flights to and from China over fears of the virus spreading.

But Ethiopian Airlines, the biggest airline in Africa, has kept flights running with five Chinese cities. The airline released a statement thanking China for its "unreserved support" and promised to stand with them always.

"Ethiopian Airlines serves countries in good and bad times," the airline's chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam told local media. "China has a strong trade and investment relationship with Africa, and Ethiopian Airlines is the major carrier that links China with many African countries. If we stop flights to China, we break that relationship."

 

 

The airline's move is comparable to that of leaders in developing countries in Asia downplaying the threat of the virus, arguably to preserve their economic ties to China. China is Africa's largest trading partner.

"Critics at home and abroad believe the Ethiopian Government has been reluctant to curtail its Ethiopian Airlines flights to avoid a falling out with the Chinese Government due to the deep economic and political ties between both countries," Quartz noted. "Like China, Ethiopia has a centralised one-party-led government with a tight control over the economy."

The decision to keep flights going between the two regions has sparked concerns even among African leaders.

Last week on a trip to Washington, Mr Kenyatta made a public plea to Ethio­pian Airlines to prioritise the health of his people above financial gain.

"Our worry as a country is not that China cannot manage the disease. Our biggest worry is diseases coming into areas with weaker health systems like ours," said the Kenyan leader. "It has nothing to do with our relationship with any country. It's about protecting our people from the risk of infection."


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