Buhari at the airport in the northern city of Kaduna [Photo: Courtesy]

The coronavirus pandemic could narrow one gaping inequality in Africa, where some heads of state and other elite jet off to Europe or Asia for healthcare unavailable in their nations. As countries including their own impose dramatic travel restrictions, they might have to take their chances at home.

For years, leaders from Benin to Zimbabwe have received medical care abroad while their own poorly funded health systems limp from crisis to crisis. Several presidents, including ones from Nigeria, Malawi and Zambia, have died overseas.

The practice is so notorious that a South African health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, a few years ago scolded: “We are the only continent that has its leaders seeking medical services outside the continent, outside our territory. We must be ashamed.”

Now a wave of global travel restrictions threatens to block that option for a cadre of ageing African leaders. More than 30 of Africa’s 57 international airports have closed or severely limited flights, the US State Department says. At times, flight trackers have shown the continent’s skies nearly empty.

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Perhaps “Covid-19 is an opportunity for our leaders to re-examine their priorities,” said Livingstone Sewanyana of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, which has long urged African countries to increase healthcare spending.

Deadly outbreaks

But that plea has not led to action, even as the continent wrestles with major crises including deadly outbreaks of Ebola and the scourges of malaria and HIV.

Spending on healthcare in Africa is roughly 5 per cent of gross domestic product, about half the global average.

That is despite a pledge by African Union members in 2001 to spend much more. Ethiopia had just three hospital beds per 10,000 people in 2015, according to World Health Organisation data, compared to two dozen or more in the US and Europe.

Central African Republic has just three ventilators in the entire country. In Zimbabwe, doctors have reported doing bare-handed surgeries for lack of gloves.

Health experts warn that many countries will be overwhelmed if the coronavirus spreads, and it is already uncomfortably close.

Several ministers in Burkina Faso have been infected, as has a top aide to Nigeria’s president. An aide to Congo’s leader died. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.

“If you test positive in a country, you should seek care in that country,” the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr John Nkengasong, told reporters on Thursday. In Nigeria, some worried their president might be among the victims. Long skittish about President Muhammadu Buhari’s absences from public view, including weeks in London for treatment for unspecified health problems, they took to Twitter to ask why he hadn’t addressed the nation as virus cases rose.

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Buhari’s office dismissed speculation about his whereabouts as an unfounded rumour.

Dismissed speculation

When he did emerge on Sunday night, he announced that all private jet flights were suspended. The international airports were already closed.

While the travel restrictions have grounded the merely wealthy, political analyst Alex Rusero said a determined African leader probably could still find a way to go abroad for care.

“They are scared of death so much they will do everything within their disposal, even if it is a private jet to a private hospital in a foreign land,” said Rusero, who is based in Zimbabwe, whose late President Robert Mugabe often sought treatment in Asia.