No coronavirus cases have been confirmed in sub-Saharan Africa, but they’re expected. The two main airlines from Africa to China, Ethiopian and Kenya Airways, have suspended many of their flights and Ethiopian is quarantining all incoming passengers from China.
What does this mean for upcoming safari travel?
First of all African countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda are much more transparent than China. Fears that as many as a dozen persons arriving from China into these countries in the last week had the virus and were quarantined became news the moment it happened. And the moment the passengers were certified virus-free was immediately broadcast.
So there is no concern – as in China – that the true picture isn’t known.
However, there is only one facility in sub-Saharan Africa capable of testing for the virus, and that’s in South Africa. All the presumed patients’ tests, therefore, took several days at best and in one case, a week, to be analyzed.
A week ago WHO warned that the likelihood of an outbreak in Africa was “very, very high.” This is because of the many flights between China and sub-Saharan Africa, because 60,000 East African students study in China, and because ongoing development projects between China and Africa are massive.
Africa’s largest dam in Ethiopia, for instance, is scheduled to go online soon. China spent 11 years building the giant structure and there are as many as 300 Chinese working at the site at any given time. China has built and staffs uranium mines in Tanzania and several oilfields in Kenya.
Kenya has announced that it will evacuate all of its students from certain areas in China, but Tanzania has not.
Reuters analysts explained that “The fear is great that a spreading epidemic of coronavirus infections will be hard to contain in countries where health systems are already overburdened with cases of Ebola, measles, malaria and other deadly infectious diseases.”
(Note that Lufthansa was the first airline to suspend flights to China, although almost all European carriers have now done so.)
The twelve African countries most at risk according to WHO are Algeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
In response Kenya Airways cancelled all flights to China, but Ethiopian has continued about half its schedule. South African Airways canceled flights between Joburg and Addis, as well as Joburg/Hong Kong although some speculate this reflects more the airlines imminent bankruptcy than a fear of the virus.
Most European and American airlines have suspended the bulk of their flights. This leaves China airlines and Cathay Pacific as the only carriers which have yet to suspend many flights. Cathay is an important carrier into sub-Saharan Africa.
Last week the Financial Times reported that the White House had summoned the 50 African ambassadors to a conference on how to deal with the virus.
“Experts fear … an inevitable outbreak of coronavirus as the US warned that the continent was an “Achilles heel” and risked becoming the “soft underbelly of the outbreak”.
The Times quoted the chief medical officer for GSK Vaccines in Britain: “Although we have no cases reported from Africa, that cannot be true.”
I don’t completely believe that. It’s hard for many westerners to appreciate that the developing African countries are pretty smart. They realize that suppressed information – bound eventually to come out – would have a much more long-lasting effect than simply telling the truth about this at the time it happens.
On the other hand, it is true that both screening and detection are far below western standards, so someone could slip through the cracks.
Indications are that shortly all passengers arriving from everywhere will begin to be screened at East African airports with instant temperature takers, the quickest tool for detecting the virus.
With this in mind travelers should be hyper careful about trying to get into these countries if they have a fever, however slight and for whatever reasons.
Quarantine in Africa isn’t quite the magic of a big game safari.