China’s Health Aid in Africa: Good Intentions, Bad Drugs

China Daily’s Africa edition, launched last week, is just the latest component of a long-running soft power campaign. China has been sending medical teams to Africa for almost 50 years, and has 42 currently at work around the continent. From Kathleen McLaughlin at the Pulitzer Center:

The eight-member Chinese medical team sent to Kampala, Uganda’s capital, a year ago by the Chinese government is booked solid, each routinely seeing 20 patients or more every day. They are specialists, led by urologist Cao Guihua, and their mission is more than medical. They are here to build goodwill among Ugandans for China.

“We are sent by the government,” says Cao. “It’s a kind of political mission by the Chinese government to African countries to build political friendship between the countries. Of course it’s working.”

[…] Cao and the other doctors are the foot soldiers in China’s soft power efforts in Africa. Their medical expertise, often more advanced than what can be found locally, is well-known and sought-after. For the doctors, working in Africa is a chance to see diseases they don’t normally deal with, but have only read about. Malaria, for example, has been all but eradicated in China but remains one of the top killers in Uganda. So the doctors make adjustments, hone their treatment skills, and as employees of the Chinese government offer treatment services for free.

McLaughlin notes that grey-market pharmaceutical sales from Chinese clinics “add an element to the endeavor that goes beyond goodwill”. The report is part of a series on China’s health aid in Africa, and this grey-market trade hints at the focus of other current instalments: fake malaria medication, which may account for up to a third of the total in Uganda and Tanzania, and is believed to originate primarily from China and India.

Malaria medications are not the only target: one instalment covers the production of fake anti-retrovirals ostensibly intended to combat HIV. Nor is China the only culprit: Tanzanian authorities blamed a local producer for one recent haul of fake HIV drugs, and McLaughlin also points out the role of Western organisations which push drugs at the cost of preventative measures. But with its efforts to counter the counterfeiters currently lagging behind India’s, China is the apparent epicentre of much of the fake drug trade. From The Guardian:

“Let’s not exonerate other countries […,” David Nahamya of Uganda’s National Drug Authority] added, noting that African factories had also been busted for making fakes. “But of course China is entering into the African market with everything … I think you have seen their strategy in so many of our sectors. To bring in as many of their own products as possible, in every possible level of quality, and take over.”

Beijing’s multibillion-dollar economic foray into Africa has rapidly turned into a double-edged sword, the boon in terms of growth offset by negative perceptions of its motives and actions.

“If reports from African regulators are accurate, Chinese companies are responsible for the most egregious medicines frauds and misformulations seen on the continent,” said Laurie Garett, senior fellow for global health at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

“Nobody has a head count, or a body count, on numbers of Africans that have died as a result. But China’s role certainly has been dreadful … Even within China’s own official media, you can find reports of dumping, drugs/medicines found substandard or fraudulent, causing harm to Chinese, are relabeled and dumped on Africa,” she added.