As the novel coronavirus rages through the world and spreads rapidly in the U.S., Africa is the least-affected continent at the moment, with less than 300 reported cases in roughly half of its 54 countries so far. A number of media outlets have reacted with a confounded tone, surprised that Africa does not have more cases and wondering if the low numbers are due to a lack of testing.
The pandemic is exposing major flaws in higher-income countries’ health systems and turning the tables on decades of travel restrictions targeting Africans. When West Africa suffered from the Ebola crisis from 2014 to 2016, the region was often painted as a weak link in the global health system, and many airlines cut flights to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Four years later, Africa is at risk of contamination primarily from Europe, China, and the U.S. Besides Egypt, nearly all the continent’s confirmed cases have come from travelers from European or East Asian countries, though that looks likely to change soon as cases rise rapidly across the continent and community transmission becomes more likely.
In a dramatic shift in fortunes, African countries — whose citizens often have to prove their health status to even get a visa to travel to Europe — have moved swiftly to control arrivals from European countries. Ghana and Kenya announced new measures prohibiting travelers from countries affected by Covid-19, the first two African nations to put in place blanket travel bans, while Senegal and Kenya also announced school closures. The Democratic Republic of Congo imposed quarantine measures on travelers from Italy, France, China, and Germany. After restricting travelers from high-risk countries to quarantine, Mauritania deported 15 Italian tourists and Tunisia deported 30 other Italians for violating theirs. Rwanda, Uganda, Mali, and others have imposed similar quarantine measure for European travelers, while across the continent, passengers are screened for their temperature at international airports. A Cameroonian news outlet reported higher arrivals from Italy due to people trying escape their coronavirus-infected country.