Virus hits war-ravaged Mali, sparks scare among Nigerian leaders

AFP , Wednesday 25 Mar 2020

Four countries led by war-ravaged Mali on Wednesday joined the lengthening list of African countries hit by the novel coronavirus as fears of the disease swept members of Nigeria's political elite.

Mali, mired in an eight-year-old conflict, said two nationals who had returned from France had tested positive for the virus.

Libya, another conflict-torn country, as well as the volatile West African state of Guinea-Bissau and Uganda in East Africa also reported their first cases of COVID-19.

More than 2,400 cases were recorded in all of Africa as of Wednesday, according to an AFP tally, with 64 deaths.

Although the toll is far lower than those recorded in Europe, the United States and the Middle East, health experts say the world's poorest continent is especially vulnerable to the virus.

Poor healthcare infrastructure, weak governance and crowded slums present ideal conditions for the respiratory disease to spread.

Conflict, in particular, is a major factor in aggravating the risk.

Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012 which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives.

The conflict has since spread to the centre of the country, and large swathes of the vast semi-arid state lie outside of government control.

The government, which earlier banned commercial flights from virus-stricken countries, appealed for the public to "remain calm and to strictly respect the recommended preventive measures".

The UN on Wednesday placed the spotlight on the Central African Republic (CAR), also gripped by conflict.

CAR "is one of the least prepared countries to face a COVID-19 outbreak, with 2.2 million people already in need of health assistance and about 70 percent of health services provided by humanitarian organisations," the country's coronavirus Global Humanitarian Response Plan warned.

- 'Jittery' in Nigeria -

In the Nigerian capital Abuja, meanwhile, fears spread of coronavirus infection among senior politicians.

A number of state governors as well as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo were in self-isolation after coming into contact with two individuals infected with COVID-19.

According to the president's office and local media, one of them is President Muhammadu Buhari's chief of staff, Abba Kyari, one of Nigeria's most influential figures.

The political elite "is in panic mode following the confirmed case of the chief of staff,"a source close to the presidency said.

"As the engine room of government, (Kyari) has contact with various segments of the society. So everybody who has had contact with him since he returned from Germany is jittery. Most of us are in self-isolation."

Nigeria's elite often jet abroad for private medical care, typically favouring Britain or the United States, rather than entrusting themselves to the country's rundown hospitals.

"STUCK!", said author Elnathan John on social media. "Nowhere to run."

Buhari, 77, who was re-elected in February last year, made several trips to London during his first four-year term for a condition that has never been disclosed.

- Lockdowns, curfews -

African states have been adopting increasingly restrictive measures against the invisible peril.

Senegal and Ivory Coast have declared states of emergency and ordered nighttime curfews, similar to South Sudan, which has ordered a nightly lockdown from 8 pm to 6 am.

South Africa, the continent's largest economy, is set to enter a lockdown from Thursday.

Ethiopia announced Wednesday it would free more than 4,000 prisoners to help prevent an outbreak in overcrowded prisons.

The measures will apply to those jailed for "petty crimes" and drug offences or have less than a year remaining on their sentences.

Conditions in Ethiopia's prisons are "harsh and in some cases life-threatening," marred by "gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation and medical care," according to the latest annual human rights report on Ethiopia from the US State Department.

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