Egypt has confirmed the first case of novel Chinese coronavirus in Africa, the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday, alarming experts who fear the continent’s healthcare systems are too fragile to combat another epidemic.
Africa is currently battling outbreaks of Ebola, measles, cholera, polio, and Lassa fever, among other diseases. Central Africa – particularly the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Kenya, and Zimbabwe – are considered some of the most sensitive areas, as state infrastructure is weak, much of the population lives in poverty, and governments are already fighting other deadly diseases. Yet many of these nations have significant exposure to travel from China, where the virus originated, due to governments cutting deals with the Communist Party, making them likely stops for infected travelers.
The novel coronavirus began infecting people in Wuhan, a central Chinese city of 11 million people, in December. On January 1, Chinese authorities shut down a wild meat market in the city believed to have been where the virus jumped from animals to humans for the first time. Beijing took nearly a month after making that discovery to alert Wuhan residents to the presence of a contagious disease, resulting in local hospitals not isolating coronavirus carriers, thereby exposing sensitive patients to the disease. The city of Wuhan also allowed five million people to leave before instituting a lockdown, spreading the virus to every province in the country.
The Egyptian Health Ministry confirmed a coronavirus case on Friday, identifying the person only as a “foreigner,” according to the country’s al-Ahram newspaper. Health Ministry spokesman Khaled Megahed said the individual was not exhibiting any outward symptoms, adding to mounting evidence that the virus takes days or even weeks to manifest. Some doctors have suggested that coronavirus patients without outward symptoms may still be contagious, prompting the Egyptian government to place the individual in quarantine.
Megahed also noted that the patient traveled into Egypt recently and authorities caught his case by isolating and testing all individuals entering the country from nations that have documented cases of the virus. The Ministry did not state the identity of the patient, where he had traveled from, or if they are monitoring others who entered the country with him.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which Egypt has notified and engaged in coronavirus response, identified the patient as a man.
“The case was transferred as a foreign person to the hospital for isolation, follow-up and health check, as the case carries the virus and does not show any symptoms, and his condition is completely stable,” the WHO’s Egypt office posted on Twitter Sunday.
Egypt had already canceled departing and arriving flights from China on January 30 for at least the next month, the South China Morning Post noted and is currently handling cases of Egyptian nationals brought home from affected areas. Al-Ahram, citing the Egyptian Health Ministry, reported that the 302 Egyptians evacuated from Wuhan concluded their mandatory 14-day isolation on Monday, and all tested negative for the virus.
The WHO, at the Chinese Communist Party’s behest, is discouraging countries from stopping flights to and from China, as Beijing insists that doing so shows distrust of its authoritarian regime. Most nations have ignored this advice, leading to a two-thirds drop in the number of flights leaving China less than a month since it revealed the existence of the novel coronavirus.
Precautionary measures have limited most cases to Chinese borders. At press time, global health officials have identified 71,811 people as confirmed coronavirus cases, the overwhelming majority of them within China. Another 1,775 people have died of the virus, most in China, except isolated cases in the Philippines, Taiwan, France, Japan, and Hong Kong. The Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined off the coast of Japan after a person on board tested positive for coronavirus, is now home to 369 cases out of 2,500 people on board – more than any other country, except China.
Outside of Egypt, no African country has documented cases. In the surrounding areas, Spain, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates have identified confirmed virus carriers.
WHO officials and others in the health industry have identified Africa as a particularly vulnerable continent for an outbreak, however, given its ties to China and its weak healthcare systems. Nations that have signed onto the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a worldwide plan in which China invests millions in building roads, ports, and railways through predatory loans, then seizes those projects from the countries they are built in – have taken in thousands of Chinese workers, many of whom flagrantly violate local immigration policies to stay and work illegally, particularly in Kenya. The programs, which have resulted in Chinese government officials instituting racist policies against Africans in their own countries, have triggered a widespread backlash against the Chinese government, which has led to some movements in Africa banning Chinese citizens until the coronavirus outbreak wanes.
The WHO said in a statement in early February that it is working to identify and aid vulnerable countries in Africa.
“WHO has identified 13 top priority countries (Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) which either have direct links or a high volume of travel to China,” the U.N. agency said, noting that many of these countries identified suspected cases but have not confirmed them.
Currently, only six laboratories in the entire continent of Africa are prepared to test samples for coronavirus.