Africa is at high risk from the spread of the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, because of fragile health care systems and the absence of vital equipment such as respiratory support machines, according to World Health Organization (WHO) regional director Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti.

In the past three weeks, the number of African countries acquiring the reagents necessary to test for the virus, first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has jumped from just two to 26, said Moeti.

China’s ambassador to the African Union Liu Yuxi this week appealed to African states to ease travel restrictions imposed on freight and passenger flights to and from China, such as implemented by Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways, but other voices has urged caution.

Only Egypt has so far confirmed a case of Covid-19, but it is feared the virus may already have entered sub-Saharan Africa countries where few if any controls were exercised at border posts during the first few months of the contagion.

Lagos-based air ambulance and offshore medical solutions contractor Flying Doctors Nigeria, founded and run by entrepreneur Ola Orekunrin, has called it a true pandemic as the virus has crossed into several continents.

“The WHO has stopped short of posting a pandemic but we in Africa have to be particularly vigilant because of our health care deficit and dearth of financial resources,” Orekunrin told Upstream.

China is Africa’s largest trading partner and the United Nations Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD) calculates that more than a million Chinese work in Africa with thousands more travelling between continents.

“China this month budgeted $10.26 billion to fight the virus, a huge sum amounting to some 20 years of overall health spending in many African countries, so we can only remain vigilant,” she said.