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Africa, intertwined with China, fears coronavirus outbreak

Travelers going through screening for the coronavirus at the international airport in Addis Ababa.

There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Africa yet, but with steady traffic to and from China, experts worry that the epidemic could overrun already-strained health systems.

As the 9 a.m. flight from Dubai arrived at the international airport in Ethiopia’s capital on Wednesday, four government health specialists in face masks and protective glasses worked their way to the line of incoming passengers to check their passports.

The health specialists found what they were looking for — two passengers who had just returned from China — and pulled them aside to check their temperatures to see if they might have been infected by the coronavirus.

The two passengers had normal temperatures, so were allowed to continue on their way, a government policy that does not account for an incubation period that is up to 14 days.

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc in China and has spread to countries around the world, experts are increasingly concerned that Africa is particularly vulnerable.

The continent’s health system is already fragile. It has few facilities even to test for the virus. Its doctors are already straining to contain deadly outbreaks of other diseases, like malaria, measles and Ebola.

And on top of that, Africa has large numbers of Chinese workers, many now returning to the continent after visits to China for the Lunar New Year. Meanwhile, some of the 81,000 African students who have been studying in China are now heading home. But while more and more countries tighten their controls over travel with China, Ethiopia has kept the door open and the planes flying.

If the coronavirus hits Africa, said Dr. John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, “it will be massive.”

There have been 32 suspected cases of coronavirus in Africa, but none tested positive for the virus, according to the Africa C.D.C. But until this week, only two countries on the continent — South Africa and Senegal — had laboratories capable of testing for the coronavirus.

Most hospitals on the continent, other than large ones in capitals or regional seats, do not have the intensive care units that patients diagnosed with the coronavirus might require, experts say.

“If this happens in Africa it will be a huge struggle because the health services are quite overstretched dealing with ongoing diseases like malaria and measles and the current Ebola outbreak,” said Michel Yao, the World Health Organization’s Emergency Operations Program Manager for Africa.

Africa was largely spared in 2002 and 2003 when the SARS virus, which also originated in China, spread around the world, killing nearly 800 people and infecting more than 8,000, mostly in China and Hong Kong. Africa reported only one case, in South Africa.

But the risk is far greater now, experts say. China and Africa have become intertwined in the last two decades as China has expanded its political, economic, and military ties to Africa, funding large infrastructure projects and pledging tens of billions of dollars in investments and loans.

Chinese citizens have flocked to Africa, working in industries ranging from manufacturing and technology to health care and construction. Estimates of how many Chinese are now living in Africa range from about 200,000 to as many as two million.

Air travel between China and Africa has increased exponentially in the last decade alone, from one flight a day to an average of eight direct flights.— Livescience

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