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China’s Role in Combatting Ebola in West Africa

As authorities in Hubei continue to deal with the spread of the Corona Virus, whilst other cases emerge overseas, the western media have been very quick and eager to use the situation to score political points against China. In doing so, they haven’t authored a fair assessment of the country’s massive advances in healthcare infrastructure, research, pharmacy and disaster response mechanisms. At the same time, such sources have also ignored China’s growing contributions to international healthcare cooperation that is the response of the country to epidemics and disease outbreaks overseas which even if absent locally, may have global repercussions if not dealt with.

In doing so, it is not reported how China played a decisive role in combatting the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2015 which broke out in West Africa. Driven by the country’s emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, combined with its close ties to African nations, China provided support to affected countries on a number of levels, including through direct aid and supplies, drugs and vaccines, health personnel, creation of healthcare infrastructure and research facilities and robust support to affiliated international organizations working on the ground. The effort was described by World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan as “a huge boost, morally and operationally.”

Contemporary China is eager to demonstrate that it is a serious global player and stakeholder on issues of global concern. In doing so, its diplomacy has placed increasing emphasis on cooperating with other countries and international bodies on matters such as climate change, peace, and conflict resolution, non-proliferation (including the DPRK and Iran), counter-terrorism and of course on this matter: healthcare. In an increasingly connected world, China recognizes that diseases and viruses have new potential to spread and proliferate faster than ever before, with global consequences.

George Gao with Tim Brooks, head of Public Health England’s rare and imported pathogens lab, who recently deployed to Sierra Leone. COURTESY OF GEORGE GAO
A Chinese medical expert helps workers from Sierra Leone-China Friendship Hospital learn how to use an electronic equipment for testing body temperature in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

For developing countries who struggle on matters such as public health, the provision of international support during times of crisis is essential to the interests of all countries, not least China due to its size and population. In addition, Beijing has sought to establish especially close ties with countries in Africa as a form of “global south” solidarity, a tradition evolving from the 1960s. With the ever-growing numbers of African students coming to study in China and with many Chinese workers in Africa itself, the outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in 2014 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone thus posed major repercussions for China itself.

Given these factors above, China pledged itself to cooperate as much as possible, with Wang Yi stating they were the first to answer the call. By November 2014 Beijing had sent over $123 million USD worth of humanitarian aid to the broader effect, both to the affected countries bilaterally and organizations combatting it including the World Health Organization and the World Food Program. This aid included food aid, medical supplies and equipment, rolling stock such as ambulances and motorcycles, and prevention tools. The supplies were delivered quickly through the use of large charted planes.

In addition, it also supplied a large number of human personnel including over 115 medical experts, a 59 member laboratory team and up to 1000 other personnel including doctors, nurses and other medical professionals.  The People’s Liberation Army was also mobilized in order to distribute the aid and construct an Ebola treatment center with 100 beds. On the research front, China constructed a mobile laboratory and a biosafety lab that treat patients, whilst also creating and distributing an Ebola vaccine, the only one which used genetic material from the outbreak itself.

The impact of such efforts made a noticeable difference, China had contributed more personnel than any other country and effectively constituted up to two-thirds of the total aid in Guiana alone. What makes the outcome more notable is that for China this situation was a first, never before had the country responded so decisively to overseas disease outbreak, showing not only how China had learned lessons from the experience of SARs, but also the growing importance it placed on international cooperation. In this case, whilst the media are eager to attack and pour cynicism on China over the coronavirus, there is plentiful evidence that it takes healthcare and outbreak response very seriously, even to the point of assisting countries in much less fortunate positions.

Tom Fowdy is a Political Columnist for the Southern African Times. A graduate of Oxford University, he covers China’s relationship with the developing world.

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