COVID-19, Africans’ hardships in China, and the future of Africa-China relations

Workers in protective suits repair barriers that have been built to separate residential buildings from a street in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province and China's epicentre of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

In the midst of the global scramble to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, relations have ruptured at a most unexpected front—between China and Africa. Since April 8, reports and social media discussions about the eviction and maltreatment of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou have gone viral, leading to a series of formal and official diplomatic protests from the African Union and African countries toward China. Never before had the two sides had such a critical, high-profile, and widespread clash of positions, let alone allowed it to erupt in front of the public. Given China’s relentless efforts to consolidate ties and enhance engagement with Africa (including sending medical equipment and doctors to the continent during this crisis), this racism and discrimination against African migrants and residents is both shocking to the world and damaging for China’s policy agenda.

The origin of the rupture: A rise in imported COVID-19 cases

The discrimination and maltreatment the African nationals have suffered are the direct result of the rising pressure from the imported cases of COVID-19 faced by the authorities of Guangzhou. On March 28, China officially imposed an entry ban on all foreign nationals with visas or residence permits in an attempt to curb the rising number of imported cases after the country managed to control the domestic infection. As a part of these measures, Chinese airlines are only allowed to operate one route per week to any specific country, primarily to bring back overseas Chinese who wish to return.

As the imported cases became the biggest challenge to China’s battle against COVID-19, foreign nationals who arrived in China before March 28 quickly became the center of attention. In particular, the central government put great pressure on all local cities to minimize the number of imported cases. Guangzhou, the home to Asia’s largest African migrant population, suddenly became the front line of China’s renewed battle with COVID-19.

Notably, local authorities have identified Africa as the source of the largest number of imported COVID-19 cases—among all foreign cases identified in Guangzhou, 76 percent have been from African countries, including 36 percent from Nigeria alone. More specifically, by April 11, the city of Guangzhou had identified a total of 119 imported cases of COVID-19, 25 of whom are foreign nationals—including nine Nigerians, three Angolans, two Nigeriens, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and one each from France, Brazil, the U.K., Australia, Syria, Russia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar.

Local authorities have turned particular attention toward Etihad Air’s flight ET 606 (Addis-Guangzhou), which had been suspended since March 31. By that date, cumulatively, 18 imported cases had been identified from that route alone, including at least nine confirmed cases on the March 20 flight.

Perhaps worse, among the 13 new local cases, 12 infections have been traced back to imported African cases. In fact, five Nigerians who reportedly ate at the local Emma Food restaurant later tested positive for COVID-19 and the restaurant became the center of local infections, including its owner, staff, and other customers. As a result, local authorities began to screen and quarantine all related personnel and their contacts, regardless of their nationality.

Because of the large percentage of African population involved in this situation, Africans have become a top target of Chinese quarantine efforts. As a result, local Chinese started to fear that all Africans in the city were infected and contagious, bringing an eruption of local resentment, evictions, refusals of service, and maltreatment. The timing in this rise in negative sentiment tracks with the rising number of African infections in Guangzhou: The persecutions have really only appeared in April, not during the peak periods of China’s COVID-19 crisis, which was late January to mid-March. Local shops refuse to provide service to “black people,” and evicted African nationals have had to sleep on the street.

African suspected and confirmed patients in China face dangerously high personal and financial costs

In Chinese society, implicit racism and discrimination against Africans, or more broadly, “black people,” is not new and had been observed long before the COVID-19 crisis. However, COVID-19 has brought this tension to new levels, and, in the case of Guangzhou, (falsely) presents Africans as a direct threat to the safety and security of the local Chinese. It should also be noted that discrimination due to COVID-19 is on the rise more generally. For example, people of Asian descent in the United States and elsewhere are also facing heightened discrimination due to the coronavirus’ association with China.

Beijing claims that all foreigners are being treated equally, but fails to remember that not all foreigners come from an equal footing. African migrants, often from less developed countries and lower social-economic statuses, are much more vulnerable and susceptible to the turbulence from these local policies than their Western counterparts. For example, the costs of mandatory quarantine of Chinese and foreigners that entered China since mid-March are billed to the individuals instead of the government; so are the treatment costs for people without Chinese health insurance. With the charge of $40-$50 per day during the quarantine and an average cost of $2,500 for treatment on the ground, many affected Africans will have a difficult time footing the bill. This situation is particularly true now given how COVID-19 has disrupted the livelihoods of many local African traders. As a temporary remedy, many local authorities have designated specific hotels for the quarantine of foreigners and pledged an “appropriate reduction or removal of costs for people with economic difficulties.” So far, how this promised financial relief will be implemented is unknown.

This crisis has also laid bare the status and conditions of illegal Africans who have overstayed their visas in China, an issue of deserved attention and scrutiny. Fear of identification, arrest, and deportation has caused many of these immigrants to evade mandatory testing and inspections, complicating the Chinese government’s efforts to quash the pandemic.

While China might see such quarantine and treatment as nonnegotiable necessity, they put some of the African population in an impossible place—risk their health and/or spreading the disease versus financial ruin or deportation.

Smoothing over local African-Chinese relations could face hurdles

Beijing has mobilized rapidly to dissipate the outcry of grieved African leaders and people, especially as African ministers from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and elsewhere have expressed serious concerns over the treatment of African expatriates in China. In response, the Chinese foreign minister has promised equal treatment of all foreign nationals in China and blamed the rupture on the “manipulation by certain forces.” The Foreign Ministry and Guangzhou authorities have even begun coordinating to provide lodging and food to affected resident Africans. Whether Beijing’s self-claimed “zero-tolerance” of racism and discrimination is disingenuous is, at the very least, subject to debate. However, when the African population is singled out—either in reality or by government emphasis—as the source of new infections in Guangzhou and elsewhere, discriminative rhetoric and actions are bound to follow. Compounding issues, the government did not provide any safety net or any alternative accommodation for local Africans to fall back on, directly causing more distress and hardship.

How the local community will accept the African population again once the crisis is over, and whether the African population will suffer the entrenched negative perceptions of the locals over a long period of time are questions that the Chinese authorities can’t answer right now. But Beijing needs to design policies now in order to ensure local Africans’ reintegration into local communities and punitive measures for future discriminatory practices against African nationals. The case of Africans in Guangzhou might seem unique, but other countries could soon face a similar problem. Foreign immigrants constitute some of the most vulnerable communities in some Western countries. Due to language barriers, higher density of boarding, and lack of farsightedness from the government, they could very quickly turn into the foremost victims of COVID-19. The case of China should serve as a warning and a lesson for the rest of the world.