Photograph — WHO

Countries across Africa are intensifying efforts to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus that has now killed at least 565 people worldwide and infected more than 28,000 people in over two dozen countries. Although the overwhelming majority of cases are in China – over 90 percent – the epidemic has spread to several Asian countries, and as far as the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency last week but no cases have been confirmed so far in any African country. However, the risk of an outbreak on the continent is high, WHO officals say. This is largely due to China’s tight relationship with several African countries that sees an estimated one million Chinese nationals working on the continent and flights from the Asian nation bring some 1,000 travelers to Africa daily.

Africa’s healthcare capacity is limited with reports suggesting there are only a few labs that could test for the coronavirus across the 54 countries on in the region. “Our greatest concern is about the potential for spread in other countries with weaker health systems and who lack the capacity to detect and diagnose the virus,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday. “We’re only as strong as the weakest link.”

In response, Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has activated its emergency operation centre which would create a single incident system to manage the outbreak across the continent, according to John Nkengasong, Africa’s CDC director. The body also has a training workshop in Senegal for 15 African countries on laboratory diagnosis.

Moreover, the continent has more than doubled the number of laboratories now equipped to diagnose the viral infection as of Thursday, adding facilities in Ghana, Madagascar, and Nigeria to existing testing labs in South Africa and Sierra Leone. According to WHO officials, an additional 24 countries, comprising most of Africa’s population, will receive the materials needed to conduct the tests by the end of the week.

Since late January, the global health body has set up dozens of alerts about possible infections from 20 African countries. But besides CDC and WHO-led efforts, African governments are taking individual efforts as they ramp up preparedness to guard their people against the new and fast-spreading epidemic.

Countries with a huge number of travellers arriving from China, such as Nigeria, are screening at airports with thermal monitors and isolating anyone who shows viral symptoms. Similarly, passengers arriving at airports in The Gambia, Cameroon, and Guinea are being screened.

The Sudanese government has set up an isolation ward at a hospital in Khartoum and laboratories in Senegal and Madagascar have the testing equipment they need. Mozambique has stopped issuing visas for Chinese nationals and South Africa’s postal service no longer accepts packages from China.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has barred its citizens from flying to China. Burkina Faso has asked Chinese citizens to delay travelling to Burkina and that they would be quarantined if they do, according to a Reuters report.

Meanwhile, six African airlines including Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda have halted flights they consider hazardous, but Ethiopian Airlines has maintained weekly flights to four Chinese cities, excluding Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak.

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