A Virus ‘Next Door’, Time to Act!

Much remains to be understood about the 2019 new coronavirus. Since the new virus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late December, to date, it has killed over 700 people with more than 30,000 others infected. The vast majority of deaths and infections have so far occurred in Hubei province, a landlocked province in Central China. Countries the world over, not least African nations are ramping up efforts to stop an outbreak of the virus that has so far spread to several Asian countries, the United States, Europe and Australia, with Egypt having the first case  in the African continent.  

Africa has reason to be worried over an outbreak of the deadly virus. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. The first half of 2019 saw a surge in China’s total import and export volume with Africa, which stood at $101.86 billion. During the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, it announced ten major plans for cooperation with the continent, many of which were targeted at economic and trade cooperation. FOCAC, set up in 2000, serves as a platform established by China and African countries for collective consultation and dialogue and as a cooperation mechanism among developing countries.  

Given her past experience during the Ebola outbreak and how it cost us as a nation, Sierra Leoneans are right to be wary. This is also against the backdrop of the long-standing ties of cooperation both nations have enjoyed not just at the bilateral level, but at the people-to-people level too. There are also hundreds of Sierra Leoneans flying to China on business trips given the deep trade and travel ties between the two countries.

The impact is becoming obvious. Air travel has been dramatically reduced and over 45 million people are in lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus. But there is more to it. As its lead trading partner, the economic consequences of the virus will in the coming months or year be severely felt in Africa, more than any other region in the world. A drop in the importation of goods from China would lead to scarcity of goods and subsequently increase in the price of commodities. As most leading African airlines have already cancelled flights to China, there is undoubtedly going to be a downward trend in passenger traffic between the continent and China. The outbreak could further cost China tens of billions of dollars’ worth in trading.  China will, in the interim, need to focus on combating the virus and abandoning its ‘go-global’ policy. This affect Africa’s growth trajectory given China’s role in such a route.

So, with both Africa appearing to be neighbors from a distance with China, (the world being a global village) and with what we went through following the 2014 Ebola outbreak in the three small West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is vital for African governments to take necessary Egypt has reported a case of the virus is a cause for concern. Nigeria has advised its citizens to delay travels to China unless if extremely essential. And in what appears like the continent putting China in quarantine, flights like Royal Air Maroc, Kenya Airways and other African airlines with direct flights to China have suspended those flights.

Sierra Leone’s health facilities are seriously challenged. This was manifested during the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Countries with stronger health systems like Nigeria were quick to contain the spread, unlike Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which had extremely poor health facilities. And we had a slow start to an outbreak that eventually outstripped others. The alarm was raised, but we could not act promptly and subsequently killed close to 11,310 in the three Mano River Union countries.

SierraEye will encourage government to continue to see Ebola as an eye-opener if we are to successfully prevent further outbreaks of any kind of virus or disease in the future. The government, through the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, should go beyond watching the situation and take concrete actions. There should be stringent measures at our border crossing points, not just at the airport. Our health workers should be on their guard. Body temperature checks should be reactivated, public education drive must be robust, and community engagements even at the lowest level should form part of those actions that would raise awareness.

The time to act is now rather than wait until when things get out of hands. But as we do that we must ensure we do not stigmatize people, especially the Chinese. We know what it means to be stigmatized. We had our experience with Ebola. We would not want to see others go through the same terrible experience. China’s efforts so far in tackling the virus remain strong and give confidence to the world that all is not lost.

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