Six years after an Ebola outbreak led to travel restrictions for many West Africans, the coronavirus pandemic has reversed the situation: A growing number of African countries are imposing restrictions on visits by Europeans.
The Ebola epidemic in 2014 led to flight shutdowns, visa bans and quarantine regimes that affected thousands of travellers from the three West African countries at the heart of the outbreak. Today the coronavirus crisis is leading to similar restrictions for many Western visitors to Africa – and a similar rise in fear and suspicion of foreigners, but with the stigma now often targeted at Europeans.
In almost all of the dozen African countries where cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed so far, the cases were imported by travellers who had been in Italy, France, Germany or other European countries.
South Africa announced six new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bringing its total to 13. Twelve of the 13 had been travelling in Europe, and the other was married to one of the travellers.
In total, 121 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the African continent so far – a relatively small number, for reasons that aren’t yet fully understood. Despite the vulnerabilities of fragile health systems on the continent, most countries in Africa now have laboratories available to test any suspected cases.
Uganda became the latest country to impose new restrictions on Wednesday when it announced that visitors from 16 countries – including 11 European countries and the United States – would be requested to postpone their travel to Uganda. If they insisted on visiting, people from these countries would be required to quarantine themselves for two weeks, the Ugandan Health Ministry said.
“This means one will stay at his/her home, hotel room or any identified accommodation without mixing with family members or the general public for a period of 14 days,” Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng said in the announcement.
She said her ministry is also considering a plan to spray a disinfectant on all travellers, from head to foot, as they disembark from their aircraft on arrival in Uganda.
Earlier this week, Uganda deported 22 visitors, mostly tourists who had flown into the country. They were from countries where the coronavirus is spreading, and they refused to go into self-quarantine, officials said, without identifying the countries.
Similar restrictions have been announced by many other African countries. Last week, Kenya suspended direct flights from Italy to its coastal resort areas, popular among Italian tourists. Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island region of Tanzania, has imposed a temporary ban on all flights from Italy.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, meanwhile, announced a 14-day self-quarantine rule for all visitors from Italy, France, Germany and China.
On social media in countries such as Senegal where the virus has recently arrived, many Africans have been voicing their anger at Europeans, blaming them for importing the virus. Some commentators have portrayed it as a continuation of historic victimization of Africa by its former colonizers.
The largest number of African cases has been reported in Egypt, with 67 so far. The first case in Egypt was a visitor from China, but a later outbreak hit a Nile River tourist cruise ship. Egyptian officials have suggested that the cruise-ship outbreak had originated with a tourist from Taiwan, but the Taiwan government said this week that a DNA sequencing of the virus strain in her blood had ruled out this claim, leaving the origin unsolved.
There have been fears that the coronavirus could spread more easily in Africa because of the weak health-care systems in many countries and because of widespread pre-existing health problems such as malaria and HIV. But experts have also suggested that Africa could be more resilient because of its relatively young population, compared with European and Asian countries.
Many African countries also have another advantage: lengthy experience with Ebola-related issues, which has created a formal infrastructure to monitor the health of visitors at airports and borders. Temperatures are routinely checked at many African airports to see whether arriving passengers have any signs of fever.
David Hornsby, a Carleton University professor and expert on Canada-Africa relations, said he was impressed by Uganda’s system of health checks for arriving passengers at Entebbe airport, the country’s main international airport.
Mr. Hornsby, who arrived in Uganda on Sunday, said the passengers were greeted by health officials in medical scrubs and face masks who took their temperatures, directed them to use a hand-sanitizing liquid on their hands and face and required them to fill out a health questionnaire. They also had disinfectant spray bottles available in case of necessity.
The health checks in Uganda were much more extensive than what he has witnessed at Canadian and U.S. airports, Mr. Hornsby said.
“It was seriously impressive when one considers the challenges of access to viable public medicine in these spaces,” he said.