Alvin Young is a Rangel Fellow and master's candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.
Almost 5,000 African students study in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. To date, health officials reported over 2,000 deaths and more than 70,000 infections across mainland China. In response, many governments have moved to evacuate their citizens from Hubei province. China is Africa's most important trading partner, and African governments are concerned about the coronavirus spreading to the continent.
Undoubtedly, the situation in Wuhan is taking a psychological toll on African students, with many expressing well-founded fears about the coronavirus, potential food shortages, and pharmacies running out of masks. Students from the Ivory Coast and Ghana remain frustrated by their government’s refusal to evacuate and are not convinced that staying in China is their best option, and reports show that medical facilities in Wuhan and surrounding areas are struggling to replenish supplies. Several African students at Wuhan University of Science and Technology staged a silent protest last week. Michkey Aadney, an African post graduate student in Wuhan writes, “the idea that the mass evacuation of Africans in Wuhan amounts to importing the virus is wrong. It is time for African governments to show that they truly value the humanity of their citizens—by bringing us home.”
But efforts are being made to reassure and assist the stranded students. According to some African students at Wuhan University, the school opened an online program to purchase groceries that will be delivered to dormitories. However, African students in Wuhan remain frustrated because there is no clear strategy coming from African governments to help nationals in China. Tisiliyani Salima, president of the Zambian-Wuhan student association opined that staying in Wuhan “doesn’t guarantee our safety. We are just in a country that has better medical facilities.” Yangtze University reported that Kem Senou Pavel Daryl, a Cameroonian student in China, contracted the coronavirus, but after two weeks of treatment began to show signs of recovery. Daryl is now under quarantine for fourteen days, and told the BBC, “No matter what happens I don’t want to take the sickness back to Africa.”
Africa’s weak and underfunded healthcare systems make it especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus. For example, Ebola, albeit much deadlier than coronavirus, took more than 11,000 lives across coastal West Africa. Local health systems were not prepared for such an epidemic. It led to a reduction in trade, transportation, tourism, agricultural production, and a loss in confidence from key trading partners. According to the World Bank, "the overall impact of the Ebola crisis on Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have been estimated at $2.8 billion."
The African Union and the World Health Organization remain very concerned about a potential outbreak on the continent. AU member states such as Senegal are unable to match “big countries” in organizing emergency evacuations or specialized medical personnel and quarantine facilities that would be required. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta likely speaks for many when he said, "We don't have the capacity to build hospitals in seven days,” referring to China’s rapid construction of a hospital in Wuhan to accommodate coronavirus patients. “So we must do everything that we can within our limited resources to ensure that we keep the virus completely away.” Hence, it may be that certain African governments make no moves to accept or facilitate the return of their citizens from Wuhan or surrounding areas. Though fears of outbreaks continue, Ethiopian Airlines is still operating flights to China, leading the World Health Organization to list it as one of thirteen countries in the region that need to be “particularly vigilant for the novel coronavirus.”
Although some students feel abandoned by their governments, keeping African students in China may be the best alternative until a regional response to prevent a potential outbreak is fully implemented in Africa.