A small mountain village in Jimma, southwest Ethiopia, is home to the burial place of Chinese cardiovascular expert Mei Gengnian. Head of China’s first medical team to Ethiopia in 1974, Mei treated over 300 patients and performed seven operations on his busiest day.
However, Mei’s Africa trip abruptly ended one and a half years later when he died in a tragic car accident after wrapping up medical consultations in a disaster-stricken area. Yet his mantle was taken up by his son, Mei Xueqian, who joined another Chinese medical team to Africa in 1998 and again headed to Ethiopia.
The story of Mei and his son offers insight into China’s longstanding medical assistance to and health cooperation with Africa. In 1963, the first Chinese medical team departed Beijing, transited through three different countries, and arrived in Algeria 10 days later.
Since then, China has dispatched over 22,000 medical personnel to Africa, providing more than 220 million diagnoses and treatments for people in over 50 African countries.
Global narratives on Africa’s development rightly emphasize the economic dimension while the social dimension—public health in particular—is sometimes undervalued. Yet Africa, home to most developing countries, is determined to modernize its public health system, prioritized in Agenda 2063.
To achieve this, bottlenecks ranging from professional skills and infrastructure to disease preparedness must still be addressed. Within this context, China’s assistance to and cooperation with Africa on public health can contribute meaningfully. Initiated as medical team dispatches, it has gradually broadened as China shares experience gained during its own public health modernization.
Capacity-building begins with China’s medical cooperation with Africa. Human resource management and health research are strategic priorities in Africa’s 2016-2030 Health Strategy.
To meet this need, China has provided various medical training forms including clinical teaching, surgical demonstrations, academic lectures, online courses and training programs in China. In February this year, after training by China’s 23rd medical team to Zambia, Zambian doctors independently performed endoscopic pituitary tumor surgery through the nose for the first time, an operation previously deemed too difficult requiring Zambians to spend savings and travel abroad.
Ground training complements knowledge sharing of best diagnostic and treatment practices. South Africa and China, for instance, enjoy longstanding cooperation on traditional medicine employed by the former to improve health conditions in rural areas.
Assistance on health infrastructure is another crucial part of China’s cooperation with Africa. The African Development Bank’s 2022-2030 Strategy for Quality Health Infrastructure in Africa identified large, diverse health infrastructure needs due to Africa’s growing population.
With well-known efficiency in infrastructure building, China stepped up to address Africa’s health infrastructure needs. The Nigeria-China Friendship Hospital commissioned in 2013 illustrates this. With a total investment of over USD 12 million, the hospital was built within just 22 months, supplied with medical equipment grants.
This efficiency was also shown when China helped design, build, and deliver Nigeria’s largest makeshift hospital in a month at the height of the COVID pandemic. Over the years, China has helped build over 130 hospitals and clinics across the continent, improving local access to healthcare facilities.
In addition, cooperation increasingly focuses on disease preparedness. As the AHS makes clear, prevention is the most cost-effective way to reduce strains on health systems.
A good example is the 100-bed diagnosis and treatment center in Liberia built by China during the Ebola outbreak, designed for rapid virus detection.
A more recent example is the headquarters of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Phase 1 inaugurated earlier this year. This flagship project announced by China in 2018 during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation stands as the first pan-African CDC. It will strengthen African countries’ capacity to detect, prevent, control and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats, as its website promises.
Six decades of medical assistance to Africa is more than a high-sounding promise; it demonstrates sincerity, practical results, friendship and good faith – a commitment made by President Xi Jinping 10 years ago on his first African visit. These principles continue to guide China’s African partnerships.
Broadly, China’s African cooperation stems from development philosophies proven at home. It stresses people-centered, practical and future-oriented development considered key to kick-starting modernization processes.
China has articulated a long-term goal of mid-century modernization largely aligned with Africa’s timeframe for achieving development goals by 2063. Cooperation on public health and beyond is expected to gain momentum in the years ahead.
Yi Fan is a Beijing-based international affairs commentator.
Contributed by Yi Fan