ALGIERS, Algeria, Apr 4 – As adversity strikes in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, Algeria has found a helping hand in China, an old friend and the top exporter to Africa’s largest country.
An Air Algerie plane arrived in the capital Algiers from Beijing on March 27 carrying a 13-member Chinese medical team and equipment, including respirators, worth around $450,000.
The supplies were donated by the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) on behalf of Beijing to help Algeria battle its COVID-19 outbreak.
With 1,171 officially declared cases, including 105 deaths, Algeria is worse hit than its North African neighbours Tunisia and Morocco, and its health sector is in dire need of improvement.
China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in December, has been helping other countries fight the disease, offering masks, experts and equipment.
Algeria, with a population of more than 40 million, has placed orders with China for 100 million face masks, 30,000 testing kits as well as protective medical clothing and other equipment.
China is also expected to build a small hospital in the North African country to provide preventive care for roughly 5,000 Algerians and 4,000 Chinese employed by CSCEC, official Chinese media reported, without providing further details.
Chinese nationals make up the largest group of expatriates in Algeria, estimated at several tens of thousands of people.
Most of them are employed on large construction sites, such as for the Grand Mosque of Algiers — one of the world’s largest — erected between 2012 and 2019 by the CSCEC group.
The company is behind multiple infrastructure projects across Africa, with a base in Algeria.
“Algeria has special ties with China,” Smail Debeche, a professor of international relations at the University of Algiers, told AFP.
A ‘true friend’
These ties “go back to the war of liberation”, he said, referring to the decades-long war led by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) that led to Algeria’s independence from colonial power France in 1962.
China was the first non-Arab country to recognise Algeria’s provisional government (GPRA) when it was established in 1958.
Algeria returned the favour by supporting Beijing at the United Nations.
Over the years, amid the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and growing “anti-imperialism”, the bonds between China and Algeria grew stronger.
Algeria, nicknamed by some “the Mecca of revolutionaries”, became a key destination for leftist militants from around the world.
And during the decade-long civil war of the 1990s, China bolstered its political, military and economic ties with Algeria, while most Western nations pulled out diplomatic staff out.
Although France has maintained a close relationship with its former colony, it has lost out to China in recent years as Algeria’s main commercial partner.
Franco-Algerian ties struck a sour note when Chinese aid began pouring into Algeria to fight the novel coronavirus.
Tensions were sparked when a commentator on a news show broadcast by the France 24 TV channel suggested that the medical aid sent from Beijing went to a military hospital in Algiers.
Algerian authorities, who had expressed their gratitude to China, describing it as a “true friend”, denied the allegations and summoned the French ambassador in protest.
China’s embassy in Algiers also issued a statement dismissing the “lies and defamatory statements” made concerning the aid sent by CSCEC to Algeria.
Hubei medical helpers
The central Chinese province of Hubei is now globally known as the cradle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in Algeria, it has long been at the forefront of medical cooperation.
Since 1963, more than 3,000 Chinese health workers from Hubei have provided services free of charge in Algeria as part of a permanent medical mission, working in the fields of obstetrics, traditional medicine and surgery, according to Algeria’s health ministry.
Beyond healthcare, China has invested in oil refineries across Algeria as well as built roads and railways.
In January 2020, China exported goods worth around $560 million to Algeria — more than 18 percent of the country’s total imports — according to Algeria’s customs department.
In 2018, Algiers joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
“Most African countries find that Chinese investments are more attractive and more efficient because Chinese expertise is cheaper,” said Debeche.