Coronavirus: Evacuation debate over African citizens in Wuhan

By Michael Addaney
Posted on Wednesday, 26 February 2020 07:23

Temperature check at a supermarket in Wuhan.
Temperature check at a supermarket in Wuhan. Photo by Michael Addaney.

The increasingly desperate pleas from African students to be evacuated from the epicenter of the Novel Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China raises broader, thornier questions about how Africa should deal with its colonial past.

The city of Wuhan was effectively locked down at 10am on Thursday, January 23rd.

There was no information available as to when movement in and out of the city would once again be permitted. Most universities in Wuhan had been very supportive of their international students, including Africans, by providing masks, immune-boosting teas, hand sanitizers and information to help students protect themselves against possible infection.

There are around 4,600 African students in Wuhan today including an estimated

  • 450 from Ethiopia,
  • 420 from Tanzania,
  • 320 from Zimbabwe
  • 312 from Ghana.
  • Other countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, also have sizeable student populations in Wuhan.

Back then, and still, to this day, the major concern for most African citizens and students is the risk of being infected as the numbers in Wuhan keep rising.

When the lockdown began, people rushed to the stores to load up on food and other basic necessities which led to shortages and price hikes.

Quickly, financial support and access to basic necessities such as masks, sanitizers, and food became key concerns. Over time, these issues have however been, at least for now, addressed as some universities in the area are providing free meals and have online apps for ordering basic necessities.

Now, the key issue is getting out of here.

Despite the generosity of the Chinese authorities, the responsibility of safeguarding the safety and dignity of African nationals falls squarely on the shoulders of their home governments, a duty that is proving elusive. The fact that there aren’t any African consulates in Wuhan also aggravates the problem as African embassies in Beijing has to rely on Chinese authorities for on the ground information.

This affects the accuracy of the information that’s conveyed back to the embassies in Beijing as to what’s really happening as both the embassies and students are careful not to say anything that could potentially offend Chinese authorities.

The African Union, Agenda 2063 and the Evacuation of African Citizens

The non-evacuation of people from sub-Saharan Africa during the lockdown of Wuhan has been widely reported by the media.

The extreme stress and trauma associated with the lockdown and risk of possible infection have made several Africans in Wuhan question the value their governments place on their lives. In some social media pages, some Africans have criticised the hypocrisy of their governments in defending ‘black lives matter’ only when they are not to be blamed but forget about black lives when they have to take positive action.

Of course, there are millions of Africans who fear that bringing home the students could potentially endanger entire countries. However, the evacuees will be of no threat to their countries if the evacuation protocols outlined by the WHO and the Chinese government are followed.

For instance, Egypt has managed to successfully repatriate hundreds of its nationals safely with no danger to the country. The Egyptian government has announced that all 302 of its nationals evacuated from Wuhan and subsequently quarantined for 14 days have been cleared of infection and are now back with their families.

If Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco were able to evacuate their students safely without posing any risk to the larger populations, then it’s clearly possible for other governments in developing countries to do the same.

Regional solidarity

The responses to evacuation requests by Sub-Saharan governments reveal the failure of regional integration efforts and non-practice of pan-African values such as solidarity.

Responding to humanitarian emergencies such as the COVID-19 outbreak tests these values. Pan-regional solidarity was demonstrated by countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. For instance, Algeria evacuated its citizens and those from its neighbors (Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia), Jordan airlifted 55 Jordanians, 7 Palestinians, 3 Omanis, 1 Lebanese, 3 Tunisians and 1 Bahraini.

Similarly, out of the 190 people evacuated by New Zealand, 98 were citizens and permanent residents of New Zealand, 47 Australian citizens and permanent residents, 8 British, 17 citizens each from Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea, 5 from Samoa, 4 from Tonga, two from Fiji and one each from Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Holland, and Uzbekistan.

All these evacuees apart from the Australians were quarantined in Whangaparaoa in New Zealand. The evacuated citizens from its neighbouring countries and its close allies were done on humanitarian grounds. This is the true demonstration of good neighbourliness and pan-regional solidarity.

The Way Forward

The circumstances surrounding the non-evacuation of sub-Saharan African citizens and the prolonged containment of the epidemic require more joint efforts and cooperation among health authorities in Africa.

This is because most of their citizens will be rushing home as soon as the shutdown is lifted. Precautionary measures such as gathering and providing the biometric passport details of their citizens at the epicenter to their immigration authorities back home will be needed to ensure that those citizens undergo voluntary isolation or self-quarantine upon arriving home.

This will prevent a potential importation and consequent outbreak when most African countries least expect and thus, defeat the very reason they gave for the not evacuating their citizens.

On the other hand, evacuating the students and citizens from Hubei Province comes with major risks. For instance, aside from the need for approval from the Chinese authorities, the financial and other logistical resources may be quite costly.

African governments can cooperate and pool resources together to ease the pressure that comes with this undertaking.

This article was first published on The China Africa Project

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