“Ethiopian Airlines serves countries in good and bad times,” the airline’s chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam, told local media in Ethiopia this weekend. “China has a strong trade and investment relationship with Africa, and Ethiopian Airlines is the major carrier that links China with many African countries. If we stop flights to China, we break that relationship.”
While no coronavirus case has been confirmed on the continent, jitters have spread as preparedness to test for the disease has only slowly ramped up and the economy of China, Africa’s biggest trading partner, has taken a huge hit.
“Today, if we are not going to fly to China, China and Africa are going to be completely disconnected,” Tewolde said. “We have to take maximum precautions, but stopping flights is not one of them.”
The World Health Organization — headed by Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — has not advised airlines to withdraw flights to China. Tewolde said his decisions followed global guidelines. Health and passport screenings at the airline’s hub in Addis Ababa, he said, were stringent enough to catch suspected cases before people entered Ethiopia or transited to other African countries as most of the airline’s passengers do.
The assurances did little to assuage doubts, even among African leaders. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta made a public plea to Ethiopian Airlines while visiting Washington last week. He said the need to protect the health of Kenyans went beyond Kenya’s economic relationship with China.
“Our worry as a country is not that China cannot manage the disease. Our biggest worry is diseases coming into areas with weaker health systems like ours,” he said. “It has nothing to do with our relationship with any country. It’s about protecting our people from the risk of infection.”
Estimates of how many Chinese citizens live in Africa range from 200,000 to 2 million, and the influence of loans and investments by China’s government and state-owned companies is visible in most African countries, where they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure and manufacturing projects.
More than a quarter of China’s global construction projects in recent years have been in Africa, said Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. That has caused at least some of China’s partners in Africa to think twice before taking actions that might impede economic ties.
“In Africa, they’re just not seeing a reason yet to disrupt the business with a major economic partner,” Brautigam said.
Economists in Africa warned that the continent’s dependence on China means any downturn there would eventually reach these shores.
“By all accounts, any slowdown in Chinese economic activity is bound to have a material impact on Africa,” said Zemedeneh Negatu, an Ethiopian business adviser who has consulted for Ethiopian Airlines.
“Last year, China-Africa trade was around $200 billion, mostly in oil, iron, copper and other raw commodities,” he said. “There are already indications that the Chinese economy will grow at less than 5 percent this year, which means demand from China will be substantially reduced. If the outbreak is prolonged, you will see the impacts very clearly in Africa.”
Spokesmen for three of the eastern African seaboard’s biggest ports, in Djibouti; Mombasa, Kenya; and Beira, Mozambique, said shipping from China hadn’t declined yet, but because container vessels move slowly, the effects of several port closures in China would be felt in Africa in a few weeks.
John Ashbourne, an analyst at Capital Economics who specializes in Africa, said some of the economic wounds, such as airline cancellations, are defensive or self-inflicted. Mauritius, for instance, banned the entry of Chinese nationals even though it owes a few percentage points of its economy to Chinese tourists.
“Realistically, the harm caused by an outbreak is caused by the responses, rather than by the virus itself: travel bans, factory shutdowns, business limitations,” he said.
Business continued apace at Chinatowns in Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Dakar, Senegal. Reporters found business owners and patrons complaining that hysteria around the virus had kept some customers away but inspired a we’ll-get-through-this-together attitude in others.
Ma Quin, a 25-year-old accountant for a fishing company who moved from Beijing to Dakar last month, said his boss told staffers to start wearing face masks. Other than that, he said, the firm hasn’t changed anything because of the outbreak.
“I’m worried when I travel,” Ma said between sips of egg drop soup at a Chinese lunch spot, “but I feel safe here.”
People in Senegal treat him and his colleagues like human beings, he said — not walking contagions.
“I hear about racism against the Chinese in Europe,” he said. But Africa “can’t afford to close all doors to China.”
Paquette reported from Dakar, Senegal. Rael Ombuor in Nairobi contributed to this report.