Africans in China feel the brunt of Ebola panic

Charles Abior and his family have been doing business in China for more than 40 years, but this debonair Nigerian says he was denied entry to the recent Canton trade fair because of fears he was an Ebola carrier.

Now police call his hotel regularly and government doctors show up to check his temperature every few days. "I keep telling them, Nigeria is Ebola free," says the frustrated businessman, who buys cosmetics in China and sells them in Nigeria.

Africans around the world – even those from countries far removed from the west African nations most affected by the virus – are feeling the brunt of public panic from locals who fear they may catch the virus from them.

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China, with its 1.4 billion population and overcrowded cities, has had no confirmed cases of Ebola, and controls on the media appear to have kept the level of public concern relatively low. Beijing will do whatever it takes to keep Ebola out of China, including in effect banning some Africans from the Canton fair and enlisting hotels to help monitor others.

After being turned away from the fair, Mr Abior traveled to Yiwu, the vast international market town in eastern China where African traders come in their thousands to buy everything from rubber gloves and hairbands, to bedsheets and women's underwear, from 200,000 vendors. Yiwu is on the front line of Beijing's efforts to keep Ebola out of China, along with Guangzhou, host of the Canton fair.

Lin Songtian, head of the Africa bureau at the foreign ministry, told a press conference that "China has instituted strict controls at airports and customs entry ports, in line with worldwide practice".

An African waits for a bus in Guangzhou, China.
David Hogsholt | Getty Images
An African waits for a bus in Guangzhou, China.

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But it is a delicate balancing act: Beijing needs to protect the local population without offending Africa, at a time when its ties of trade and investment with the continent are increasingly crucial to its foreign policy. Beijing insists that it has not formally restricted entry to China by the three countries most affected by Ebola: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Canton fair officials say the local government told them to reject visitors from those three countries as well as Congo – even though China's foreign and health ministries do not consider Congo to have an Ebola epidemic.

Gao Fu, vice-director of the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says ​that if the​epidemic in Africa continues, it is "just a matter of time" before China has its first Ebola case. "But I don't think there will be an extensive outbreak in China, since China has set up a very good infectious disease control and prevention system on the basis of lessons we learnt during the Sars [outbreak]" about a decade ago, he says.

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In Yiwu, Jason Ding,manager of the Longteng Hotel, is part of that system. "Currently, we mainly target countries that have a serious Ebola epidemic . . . We take the temperature of the guests from [those] countries when they check in and also in the morning and afternoon," he says. "We disinfect everything in the lift that can be touched by human hands," along with television remote controls, chair arms, telephones and tables, he says.

"When the guest checks out, we infrared sterilize the tea cups," and soak slippers in a sterile solution, he says. But most of Mr Ding's current guests are Nigerians who arrived after the country was declared Ebola free, "so our job is almost finished. Most Africans in Yiwu are Nigerians or Ugandans" with few from Ebola zone countries, he says.

Zhang Zhengbing, a Yiwu taxi driver, says, "so long as I don't shake hands with them it should be OK", echoing government advice to restrict hugging and handshaking. But Mr Abior says that does not bother him much, adding that he does not feel any fear or ostracization from the local population. "Most Chinese don't do much handshaking anyway," he says. "How often do they hug you normally?" he asks with a grin.