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COVID-19: USA, France and China Crave African Support to Overcome the Pandemic

The U.S. and France are treading unexpected paths to besiege COVID-19 with African assistance. Striking a different note, the Nigerians have strong reservations about a team of Chinese specialists invited to support them in combating the pandemic in the West African country.

While the desperate USAID relief agency has been seeking personal protective equipment (PPE) from poor countries to safeguard much needed supplies in the U.S., and a French doctor wants to test drugs on Africans. But the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) is bashing the government for inviting an 18-man team of Chinese specialists in helping to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria.

PPE from Africa for the U.S.

An unexpected “urgent request” from the USAID has popped up where least expected – on the desks of aid groups around the world that work with refugees and poor people. The U.S. agency asked them to find medical supplies and personal protective gear against the coronavirus that could be made available to the U.S. government. The unusual request was uncovered by reporters with the investigative unit of NBC News and CNN.

It is not known if the relief groups, including many in Africa, have supplies to spare or how their work with refugees and other vulnerable populations would be affected.

In March, a task force led by Vice President Mike Pence ordered a freeze on shipments of PPE abroad to safeguard supplies needed in the U.S., despite the scarcity of medical equipment across Africa. Until February, there were only two laboratories on the continent able to test for the virus – in Senegal and South Africa.

Since then, the World Health Organization (WHO) has supplied approximately 40 countries with testing equipment and more is reportedly on the way. WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebrey said some countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, were using systems developed for the deadly Ebola virus to now test for the coronavirus.

“This is a great example of how investing in health systems can pay dividends for health security,” Tedros said.

In the USAID email, titled “Urgent Request for Inventory of Available PPE and Medical Equipment Resources,” groups that carry out USAID-funded projects overseas were asked to take stock of all medical supplies that could be of use to the U.S. government in its fight against the coronavirus outbreak and inform USAID within 24 hours.

As of this week, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa was 9,867 – with 947 recoveries and 482 deaths.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute conducts tests at no cost to the patient, but it hasn’t been easy to get tested for coronavirus. Dr. Ahmed Kalebi, a lead consultant pathologist, said this was because there were only a couple hundred test kits left in Kenya. So, he sent his sample to a laboratory in South Africa.

Even there, Kalebi said, there was a backlog of 7,000 samples. “Not many countries have commercial or large-scale production of these kits, and certainly in Africa we don’t have that,” he added.

French Doctor Suggests Testing Drugs on Africans

In a slight different vein, during a debate on drug testing on French TV, Jean-Paul Mira, head of intensive care at a Parisian hospital said: “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this vaccine trial in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation?”

He continued: “It’s a little bit like it’s been done for certain AIDS studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves…”

The response was explosive. WHO head Tedros called the remark a hangover from the “colonial mentality”.

“It was a disgrace, appalling, to hear during the 21st century, to hear from scientists, that kind of remark. We condemn this in the strongest terms possible, and we assure you that this will not happen,” the WHO chief said.

“Africa can’t and won’t be a testing ground for any vaccine,” he added.

“Africa isn’t a testing lab,” Ivorian professional football player Didier Drogba, who used to play for Chelsea, wrote on Twitter. “I would like to vividly denounce those demeaning, false and most of all deeply racist words.”

Olivier Faure, of France’s Socialist Party, said the remarks were hardly a provocation. “It’s not provocation, it’s just racism,” he wrote on Twitter. “Africa is not the laboratory of Europe. Africans are not rats!”

The anti-racism group SOS Racisme called on France’s media regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de L’Audiovisuel (CSA), to formally condemn the remarks.

“It’s scandalous to see that not a single regulatory authority has come out to publicly denounce these statements,” Amar Thioune, a member of SOS Racisme, told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Le Club des avocats au Maroc, a Moroccan lawyers’ collective, said it was suing Jean-Paul Mira for racial defamation.

Mira later apologized in a statement published by his employer. “I want to present all my apologies to those who were hurt, shocked and felt insulted by the remarks that I clumsily expressed on LCI this week,” he said.

Opposition in Nigeria to Chinese Coronavirus Experts

An 18-man team of Chinese medical specialists headed for Nigeria is meeting stiff opposition from Nigerian medical groups who call the visit “an embarrassment” to hard-working doctors in the country.

The visit was announced on April 3 by the Nigerian Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire. He said they were coming to combat the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria. They will be accompanied by a consignment of globally scarce medical supplies, to augment government efforts and build capacity to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

He said the experts, comprising doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and public health managers will stay behind in the country to share their knowledge with Nigerian personnel.

“The donation by the Chinese Companies in Nigeria, includes PPEs (personal protective equipment), medical consumables, over one million surgical masks for health workers and even ICU ventilators, valued at over $100,000, all sourced in the face of global scarcity of these items.

“In addition, Chinese medical experts, comprising doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and public health managers will share their knowledge, skills and real-life experiences of fighting COVID-19 with Nigerian personnel to strengthening management of COVID-19 cases, especially with regard to critical care,” he said.

He also said the initiative “will greatly build the capacity of hard-working and resourceful Nigerian healthcare workers at the forefront of fighting coronavirus”.

But in a surprising turn of events, the invitation was vigorously rebuffed by Nigerian professionals starting with the Nigerian Union of Journalists whose president, Chris Isiguzo, called it an opportunity for Nigerians to be used as experimental guinea pigs.

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) – the premier medical association in Nigeria – joined the journalists in kicking against the government’s plan to bring in Chinese experts.

It’s “a thing of embarrassment to the membership of the Association and other health workers who are giving their best in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic under deplorable working conditions,” they said.

“We are … profoundly dismayed to learn that the Federal Government is … inviting the Chinese who from available accounts are not out of the woods themselves… Even the United Nations has just recently commended the efforts of Nigeria so far,” read the NMA statement published by the Premium Times.

The Trade Union Congress of Nigeria also advised against the plan, saying Nigeria was already handling the crisis effectively.

Harsher criticism was levelled by Capt. Jerry Ogbonna, Rtd of the ruling party.

“There is always this inferiority complex with white skin people,” he said, referring to the Asian health experts. “Nigerian doctors are some of the best in America and Europe. The ones here are doing very well even in this coronavirus pandemic. What magic does the president think Chinese doctors will perform here?

“It won’t be surprising that the Chinese doctors will be made to be on top of the Nigerian doctors. Please stop these doctors from China until our doctors have failed.”

The criticism forced the government to respond, sending spokesman Dr. Garba Abari, who noted that the government was not inviting the Chinese medical experts to take charge of the fight against COVID-19 but simply to share experiences on how the pandemic was handled in China.

Nigeria currently has 232 cases of COVID-19 of which 33 have recovered and five deaths.

Meanwhile, a contingent of Cuban doctors is expected to join the fight against the coronavirus in South Africa.

The proposed medical team will be in addition to some 200 Cuban doctors already deployed in eight South African provinces except for the Western Cape, which declined to participate in the South Africa-Cuba medical doctors’ training program.

The doctors have been providing assistance including patient care, medical examinations, transferring of samples and other services to stem the spread of the virus.

[IDN-InDepthNews)

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