Health workers wearing protective equipment disinfect a minibus in Nairobi, Kenya, March 14 2020. Picture: Picture: YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP
Health workers wearing protective equipment disinfect a minibus in Nairobi, Kenya, March 14 2020. Picture: Picture: YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP

Nairobi — Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma pledged to donate more than 1-million coronavirus tests to Africa on Monday, as more African nations confirmed their first cases or shut borders amid fears of the disease's impact on fragile health systems.

Thirty African countries — more than half the continent — are now treating nearly 400 patients with coronavirus, after Tanzania, Liberia, Benin and Somalia said they had registered their first cases.

Africa had until recently been spared the rapid spread of Covid-19, which has infected at least 174,100 worldwide. But health experts are concerned the continent's often dilapidated health infrastructure will struggle to cope as cases mount.

“We cannot ignore the potential risk to Africa and assume this continent of 1.3-billion people will blissfully escape the crisis. The world cannot afford the unthinkable consequences of a SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in Africa,” Ma's foundation said in a statement.

The foundation will send 1.1-million testing kits, 6-million masks and 60,000 protective suits and face shields to Ethiopia for distribution to Africa’s 54 nations, it said.

Earlier on Monday, the World Bank said it had committed $60m to Kenya to help the east African nation battle the outbreak.

Some countries on the continent, such as conflict-hit Somalia, depend on donors to support basic public health facilities.

Somalian health minister Fawziya Abikar Nur said the ministry had quarantined and tested four Somalis who came from China last week, and one had tested positive for the disease. International flights to Somalia were suspended for two weeks, the aviation minister said.

In West Africa, the small and impoverished nation of Liberia announced its first case. Liberia was devastated by a 2014 Ebola epidemic that killed 4,000 people, and its health care system has remained underfunded despite promises of investment.

Benin, considered a relatively stable democracy in the turbulent west African region, also announced its first case. The health ministry said the Beninois national was being held in an isolation ward in the capital after returning from Belgium and Burkina Faso on March 11.

The health ministry in the east African nation of Tanzania also confirmed its first case, a Tanzanian woman who had travelled to Denmark, Sweden and Belgium. She had her temperature taken at the airport but had no fever and was allowed to pass, but later felt unwell at her hotel, the ministry said.

Also on Monday, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Senegal and Cameroon all reported more cases and South African finance minister Tito Mboweni said his nation, which has 61 cases so far, may need to raid other government departments for funds to fight the disease. He did not provide any figures.

 

On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster and announced sweeping measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Crackdown as borders close

Many African nations, including some without reported cases, have ordered tougher control measures, including bans on public gatherings, halting flights and closing schools and universities.

Botswana, in Southern Africa, on Monday said it would bar entry to travellers from 18 high-risk countries, including China, Britain, the US, Iran, France and Italy. In West Africa, Senegal announced it would suspend flights to and from France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Portugal, as well as Tunisia and Algeria, for 30 days.

Ethiopia, Africa's second-largest nation, joined the growing list of countries that closed schools for two weeks, suspended all large gatherings and cancelled all sports events, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's office said.

Government buses will give people free rides to curb overcrowding in the public transport system, a statement said.

Nigeria's health ministry said the country, Africa's most populous, had strengthened contact tracing, stockpiled reagents used in test kits and increased testing capacity.

Also on Monday, Kenyan police raided a clinic alleged to be selling fake coronavirus testing kits. Police detained staff and locked the facility, witnesses said at the scene, after it had been advertising testing kits online.

Reuters