As the coronavirus continues to strike fear into the heart of the general public across the world, the most urgent task is to find enough medical supplies to handle surging demands for those seeking them just to soothe their concerns. Masks, hand sanitizers, and soap are flying off the shelves, leading to massive shortages and waiting lists for manufacturers not set up to increase production to unprecedented volumes even as they face their difficulties from lack of raw materials, logistical bottlenecks, and staff members who are too afraid or simply cannot make it to the assembly lines.
In countries where a diverse production base existed before the coronavirus hit, different manufacturers are converting themselves into temporary producers of needed supplies. From alcohol makers that donated their ingredients for sanitizers to apparel factories that produce masks, the shifting production is described in heroic terms, with their owners seen as sacrificing their businesses to help people in need during such an extraordinary time. Whether or not the businessmen in question is acting out of selflessness or opportunism is beside the point; the simple fact is that some countries are luckier because such diverse manufacturing capacities exist to allow for temporary production surges of needed goods.
But of course, not all countries have access to a large number of manufacturers who can pump out an increasing volume of goods needed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some countries, dependent on imports for medical supplies in the most peaceful of time, should certainly start to panic as a China-originated epidemic now has the omen of becoming a pandemic that affects all countries. As demands of the same masks and sanitizers rise across the world, it is those countries that depend on their import that will find themselves running out of supplies first.
Sub-Saharan Africa, dependent Chinese imports for the most basic of everyday goods, certainly fits the bill for the part of the world that would first face shortages when a pandemic starts. When West Africa faced the Ebola crisis a few years ago, foreign resources, in the form of money, health workers, and medical supplies to quarantine and treat thousands upon thousands of residents were indispensable in containing the epidemic. But the Ebola crisis was handled with such a global effort because donor states did not perceive themselves as being threatened by Ebola themselves, allowing plenty of supplies to be exported.
The coronavirus pandemic, if it arrives, will prove to be different. With Asia, Europe, and America all suffering from a significant number of cases, few countries will have the bandwidth to assist Africa with containing the virus should it spread on the continent. African states and peoples must handle the epidemic on their own, with no expectation of significant diversion of resources from elsewhere. The lack of indigenous ability to marshall and increase the production of needed supplies to fight the virus would only leave African states even more vulnerable to unchecked dissemination of the disease.
Given the relative inability for African states to import or produce more supplies to fight the coronavirus, their governments must be even more vigilant about import the disease than counterparts on other continents. To prevent long-term damages from the rapid spread of the virus, painful short-term policies must be put in place to systematically block entry to all foreigners and locals remotely suspected of coming into contact with carriers of the virus in any part of the world. Exercising extreme caution should entail that African states temporarily cut off transport links with the outside world to save the lives of their citizens at home.
However, recent news shows that African leaders remain too laid-back about the threat of coronavirus, whether deliberate or unintentional. Major African airlines continue to fly to China and other virus hotspots, and no systematic testing of citizens and setup of dedicated facilities for quarantines of suspected carriers are yet to be established. The desires of many African leaders to both curry favor with an economically indispensable China and portray the virus as someone else's problem are only going to delay the implementation of concrete actions that can help at least to delay the arrival of the virus from abroad.
The aloofness with which Africa is watching the coronavirus epidemic unfold is a cause for great concern. The continent has no clusters of alcohol and apparel makers that can suddenly crank out millions of masks and sanitizers. And the virus has already arrived in populous Nigeria and a Cameroon on the verge of a sustained civil war. The continent can count itself lucky for not having seen a large number of cases in Asia and Europe so far, but being complacent now will only backfire when the virus does spread. When there is still time, preparation, even via temporary isolationism, is needed.
Image Credit: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/02/18/coronavirus-is-about-hit-africa-here-are-big-challenges/