Europe poses coronavirus risk to Africa as travelers import virus

International organizations, remittances and global investment may hurt Sub-Saharan Africa during the coronavirus outbreak in ways that are only beginning to unfold.

A medical staff wears protective gear at a new section specialised in receiving any person who may have been infected with coronavirus at The Quinquinie Hospital in Douala, Cameroon February 17, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/JOSIANE KOUAGHEU)
A medical staff wears protective gear at a new section specialised in receiving any person who may have been infected with coronavirus at The Quinquinie Hospital in Douala, Cameroon February 17, 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has particularly affected European countries, China and South Korea as it spreads around the globe.
By Sunday, eleven countries had more than 1,000 documented cases of the virus, with rapid increases in Spain, Italy and France. However, vulnerable and poorer countries in the global South, especially sub-Saharan Africa, have remained virus free.
Until this weekend that is, when several countries had their first recorded cases. These cases were almost all linked to travelers from Europe. In addition, global remittances from African migrants and international organizations working on the continent may be affected by coronavirus.
On March 14, Mauritania announced its first case of coronavirus. It said a citizen of a European country had arrived in the capital Nouakchott on March 9 and is now quarantined. According to reports, there were a paucity of known cases throughout Africa, but they now include several in the Congo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Gabon, Cameroon and South Africa.
Worse appears to be in store for Central Africa, where many countries such as Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic have experienced conflict. Congo announced its first case of the virus over the weekend as well, saying a man on a flight from Paris had the virus. He had returned on March 1.
In Burkina Faso, a school closure has been announced. In the Central African Republic, an Italian man has been diagnosed. Italy is one of the worst-hit countries with the coronavirus, and travelers from Italy have spread the virus to other countries. The Italian who came to the republic with the virus arrived on March 8.
In Gabon, where the virus was first recorded on March 13, the man who contracted it had returned from a trip to France on March 8. Ghana’s Health Ministry said travelers who arrived via Turkey and Norway had the virus. In Kenya, a man who returned from the US via London had it. In Ivory Coast, a local citizen returned from Italy with the virus. In Ethiopia, the first case was a Japanese man who had returned from Burkina Faso. In Senegal, where schools are now closed, a man returned last week from Italy and was discovered to have the virus.
It appears that every case in sub-Saharan Africa of coronavirus is linked to Europe: either local citizens who returned from Europe or Europeans who traveled to Africa. This poses a serious health risk, as many of these countries already face major health challenges, poverty and conflict.
Across the Sahel there are simmering conflicts in Nigeria, Niger, Mali and other states. Somalia and some countries are either failed states or have been at war for generations. The ability of governments to track the virus outside major cities may be difficult in rural environments where government control is weak or non-existent. While Western countries don’t have enough test kits for the virus and have largely fumbled their responses, sub-Saharan countries have done what they can to prevent the spread.
There are added questions now about what international organizations and charities that work on the continent are doing to prevent their largely Western staffs, who travel in fleets of SUVs, are doing to make sure they are not infected. The United Nations and peacekeepers have been responsible for disease outbreaks in the past because the UN and some NGOs do not appear to police their own staff. For instance, a Cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 was blamed on the UN. More than 10,000 died as a result.
UN peacekeepers have also been accused of committing widespread rape and atrocities in 2014 in Central Africa, with reports indicating they had impunity from local prosecution for crimes. According to a USA Today report, despite the rape, one civilian working for the mission only had his contract terminated – and got no jail time.
This leads to questions about whether international organizations are doing due diligence amid the coronavirus pandemic, and whether they will make sure their employees returning from Europe are checked prior to arrival in sensitive and vulnerable environments where people don’t have testing kits.
Many of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa rely on remittances from migrant populations in Europe. These remittances grew to $37.8 billion in 2017, according to the World Bank. They were supposed to have been over $40 billion this year. Nigeria sponges up more than $20 billion of this cash; Liberia receives 25% of its GDP from remittances. Yet the coronavirus will hit this economy hard and will hit travelers hard as well, potentially destroying already weak and tenuous economic gains.
This is compounded by the fact that countries such as Russia, China, Turkey and others are investing in Africa, and there may be a downturn in investments as countries seek to hoard cash internally amid the pandemic.