China always said a friend in need was a friend indeed, and our continent needs China’s help more than at any other time in recent history.
Without necessary personal protective equipment for health workers, ventilators for the critically ill and adequate testing kits, Covid-19 will pose a massive threat to the future of many African countries. With 26 million Africans infected with HIV/Aids, 58 million young people with stunted growth due to malnutrition, and weak health systems compared with the developed world, Africa is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to combating this global emergency.
Already, African countries seem to be hiding or not able to give accurate figures of how many people are infected. As of last Thursday, Egypt reported it had 495 infections and 24 fatalities. But it also just expelled a Guardian journalist who quoted a report published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases Journal which says Egypt has a far higher rate than the official numbers shown. This was the product of research conducted by infectious disease specialists at the University of Toronto. The findings are more than likely true as countries can only produce figures based on the amount of testing they are conducting, and with a lack of testing kits and comprehensive containment strategy, the numbers will always be a gross underestimation.
The reality may be that Egypt has more infections than South Africa, but as we are testing people vigorously, our official numbers are the highest on the continent - and climbing.
According to a source close to the Presidency, the number of ventilators is around 4000, hugely insufficient given the number of people who are likely to need them during this crisis.
The US is panicking it does not have enough, although it has 200 000 for a population of 327 million. Its Society of Critical Care Medicine estimates 960 000 patients will need ventilator support.
If South Africa, with a population of 58 million, has only 4 000 ventilators, it should be top priority to get more and our only hope may be China. The problem is that world ventilator demand is 10 times what’s available, claims China’s top ventilator maker.
The US is turning to its car manufacturers to help companies that produce ventilators to expand output. President Donald Trump has given the green light to Ford, General Motors and Tesla to make ventilators. General Motors is partnering with Ventec, Ford with GE Healthcare, and Tesla is looking for a partner. GM is aiming to produce an additional 200000 ventilators through the joint venture, under huge pressure from the US administration to do it fast. The car manufacturers are contributing their expertise in supply chains and in mass production techniques.
Ventilators are complex machines and cost $50000 (R877 059) each. Any malfunction or loss of power could cost lives, which is why it is impractical for any company to design and build ventilators from scratch in a few months, and why joint ventures seem to be the solution.
The National Health System in the UK only has only 5 000 ventilators for a population of 66 million, which has compelled the government to call on all industries to support the production of 20000.
South Africa has a strong manufacturing base and it would be worth investigating what capacity exists to build ventilators in joint ventures with Chinese companies. Ventilators require pumps, steel parts, plastic parts and hoses. Chinese factories are working 24/7 to build medical ventilators for Milan, Italy, New York, US, and other affected places. Beijing
Aeonmed has been working round the clock since January 20 to manufacture ventilators and, after meeting China’s need for ventilators two weeks ago, its factory lines have been working flat out on orders from overseas. With tens of thousands of orders waiting, it depends how fast the company can produce them. Other ventilator factories in China have reached maximum capacity due to foreign demand.
Our only hope is that China will facilitate a stock of extra ventilators for South Africa, either as a donation or at reduced prices. As a senior Chinese official told me recently, only China and Cuba can help South Africa.
China has already proven its resolve to help South Africa with much-needed supplies to assist in curbing the spread of the virus. On March 20, Chinese enterprises and communities in South Africa donated R3million and testing kits to South Africa, of which R1m was from Huawei. Huawei is also willing to help South Africa fight the epidemic using 5G technology.
Chinese businesses have provided 550 testing reagents to South Africa and the Chinese government will provide 5000 more. Its embassy has co-ordinated Chinese enterprises in South Africa to provide raw materials for mask manufacturers and supported local Chinese to order mask production equipment from China, which has already arrived. It is estimated that the daily production of masks will be about 150000 after it is put into operation.
China has also proven its resolve to assist the rest of the continent with combating the scourge of Covid-19. China’s Centre for Disease Control had an emergency conference with representatives of 24 African countries a week ago promising help, and China is improving and modernising the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Chinese billionaire and co-founder of Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, has donated medical supplies to 54 African countries, and delivered the supplies to Addis Ababa. The AU and Ethiopian Airlines will help distribute the supplies to member states. These include 5.4 million face masks, with a further 600000 to be delivered, 1.8 million detection kits, 40000 sets of protective clothing and 60000 face shields. This is much-needed assistance at a time when the US and Europe are primarily concerned with the supplies they need for their own populations.
In Zimbabwe, the Chinese embassy launched a rehabilitation project for its main Covid-19 isolation and treatment facility in Harare. The Chinese business community mobilised resources to revamp Wilkins Hospital in 10 days by improving dilapidated infrastructure and adding intensive care beds. It has also provided medical gloves, clothing and face masks for health care workers, and provided 1000 reagent testing kits to Namibia’s health ministry, while building a huge field hospital in Senegal.
As China continues to prove itself a friend in times of grave need, not only to Africa, but countries around the world, it is developing a unique leadership position in the fight against Covid-19 which may, ultimately, alter global power relations. China is showing us the true meaning of ubuntu - I am because you are - and showing itself to be a responsible global leader not only concerned with the needs of its own citizens. The world will not forget the assistance which China provided when the stakes were high.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.