International attention—and panic—are focused on the coronavirus. In Africa, observers are acutely aware of how ill-prepared most countries are for responding to a major pandemic. With more than a billion people undergoing rapid urbanization, stuck with weak healthcare systems, and with growing economic ties to China (it is estimated that there are more than a million Chinese immigrants on the continent) Africa would appear to be highly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. Ethiopian Airlines continues its China service, and some 1,500 passengers arrive in Addis from China every day, many of whom transit to other African destinations. Yet, as of February 12, there have been no reported cased of the disease in Africa. Nor have there been any cases in South America.
It may be that the virus is present but thus far has been undetected. Africa’s weak medical infrastructure makes detection of mild forms of the disease especially difficult. There may be other factors at play specific to the virus. For example, there has been media speculation that the continent’s hot and humid climate is inhospitable to the disease. On the other hand, there are many parts of Africa where the climate is temperate, and two major international airports—Johannesburg and Addis—which both serve cities of about 8 million each, including a significant slum population, enjoy cool, dry climates. Still, neither city has reported any cases of corona virus.
Ebola appears to be much more deadly than coronavirus, but it has been concentrated in eastern Congo. The disease has killed some 2,300 people since 2018, with death rates of those who contract Ebola often over 50 percent. Coronavirus has thus far killed 1,107 worldwide as of February 12, with about 2 percent of those who contract the virus dying. The World Health Organization (WHO) is cautiously optimistic about Ebola, and its Emergency Committee will meet soon to discuss whether the disease still constitutes a global health emergency. That is good news.