Africa, lacking supplies, braces for coronavirus
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA >> At a Chinese-run hospital in Zambia, some employees watched as people who recently returned from China showed up with coughs but were not placed in isolation. A doctor tending to those patients has stopped coming to work, and health workers have been ordered not to speak publicly about the new virus that has killed hundreds around the world.
The virus that has spread through much of China has yet to be confirmed in Africa, but global health authorities are increasingly worried about the threat to the continent where an estimated 1 million Chinese now live, as some health workers on the ground warn they are not ready to handle an outbreak.
Countries are racing to take precautions as hundreds of travelers arrive from China every day. Safeguards include stronger surveillance at ports of entry and improved quarantine and testing measures across Africa, home to 1.2 billion people and some of the world’s weakest systems for detecting and treating disease.
But the effort has been complicated by a critical shortage of testing kits and numerous illnesses that display symptoms similar to the flu-like virus.
“The problem is, even if it’s mild, it can paralyze the whole community,” said Dr. Michel Yao, emergency operations manager in Africa for the World Health Organization.
Those growing worried include employees at the Sino-Zambia Friendship Hospital in the mining city of Kitwe in northern Zambia, near the Congo border. Chinese companies operate mines on the outskirts of the city of more than half a million people. One company is headquartered in Wuhan, the city at the center of the virus outbreak. Hundreds of workers traveled between Zambia and China in recent weeks.
“We’re definitely not prepared. If we had a couple of cases, it would spread very quickly,” physiotherapist Fundi Sinkala said. “We’re doing the best we can with what resources we have.”
The Sino-Zambia Friendship Hospital, or Sinozam, a low-slung facility near the city’s train station, has taken some precautions, including checking patient temperatures with infrared thermometers and establishing isolation areas. Employees wear masks. Gloves, disinfectant and oxygen inhalers have been stockpiled. Sinozam treats many Chinese in Kitwe and its precautions go further than other hospitals in the area.
But the employees and others familiar with the matter, some of whom spoke anonymously under the new rules, say some Chinese patients checked in with coughs and fevers but did not get placed in isolation.