A Chinese doctor takes a photo with a local child receiving acupuncture in a hospital in Asmara, Eritrea, in 2019 (LI WEI)
Local media outlets in Eritrea recently reported about how members of the Chinese medical team, working side by side with Eritrean doctors, performed complex spinal surgeries on patients at Halibet Hospital in Asmara in November 2022. The extremely technical operations, which are the first-ever procedures of their kind within Eritrea, are an exciting landmark in the country’s medical sector and history.
Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the first dispatch of Chinese medical team to Eritrea, the recent surgeries also serve as a timely and powerful reflection of the longstanding ties and enduring friendship between China and Eritrea, especially in the field of health. For a quarter of a century, health cooperation between China and Eritrea has positively contributed to the lives and wellbeing of the Eritrean people nationwide, and also helped to move the country’s health system forward.
Although it has received significant global attention in recent years, China’s engagement with Africa actually dates back centuries and spans a number of ancient dynasties. Modern Sino-African ties can be traced to the earliest years of African independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, China has become the continent’s leading trading partner, while Chinese investment in and lending to African countries have grown rapidly. Over the years, the relationship has steadily broadened to reach an array of other sectors, including culture, digital infrastructure and technology, security, and education.
Health, too, has been an increasingly critical area of cooperation, with China extending support to building or renovating many hospitals and health facilities across the continent. Prominently, the headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is being funded and built with Chinese support, is expected to open its doors in the near future. Additionally, China has worked with African countries to offer thousands of scholarships and short-term training opportunities for African students, as well as provided significant funding support for health projects, medicines and equipment.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, China supported Africa’s prevention and control measures, contributing multiple batches of medical resources and vaccines, committing to making vaccines available as a global public good, and dispatching doctors across the continent to help with capacity-building and strengthening of local responses.
Crucially, with the pandemic having plunged Africa into its first recession in 25 years, China also remained at the forefront of the continent’s economic recovery. It maintained robust economic and trade cooperation with Africa, while also signing debt service suspension agreements with multiple African countries, thus becoming the biggest player in terms of relieving African debt among the G20 countries.
China’s medical teams are arguably the flagship of its multifaceted health cooperation with Africa. Since April 1963 when it first sent a group of doctors to Algeria, then recovering from war, China has sent numerous medical teams - coming to an overall total of over 20,000 doctors, nurses, clinicians and other health professionals - to most countries across the continent. These highly diverse teams have provided vital, often life-saving, services, helped to train countless local personnel, collaborated with local personnel on innovative research, and contributed to building capacity and strengthening local health systems.
Health cooperation with Eritrea
As with Africa, Eritrea’s relationship with China is not new. In fact, it stretches back almost 2,000 years to as early as about the year 100, involving maritime trade and commercial activities, as well as the dispatch of emissaries. However, contemporary ties can be traced back to Eritrea’s long struggle for independence, when China offered support to Eritrea’s independence movement.
Formal diplomatic relations began after Eritrea’s independence in May 1993. China opened an embassy in Asmara. Since then, the Eritrea-China partnership has steadily expanded and strengthened. Health has been among the most extensive and important areas of bilateral cooperation.
Opened in 2003 following three years of construction, Eritrea’s largest medical facility and first fully equipped modern hospital, Orotta Hospital, was built through the close partnership of Eritrea and China. Continued bilateral cooperation in subsequent years has resulted in regular upgrades to and considerable expansions of the facility, which serves patients from across the country. China has also donated medical equipment and medicines that are used in facilities nationwide.
In addition, since 1997, a total of 15 Chinese medical teams, comprising well over 200 doctors and health professionals, have worked in Eritrea. During deployments that have lasted one to two years, these teams have worked closely alongside Eritrean health professionals to provide high-quality medical services and support general health improvements.
Through formal training and mentoring, demonstration and observation, and introduction of new techniques or approaches such as traditional Chinese medical practices and medicines, the medical teams have helped to reinforce Eritrea’s health capacity, while also expanding and strengthening the skills of local health personnel. At the same time, the visiting medical teams have had the opportunity to learn from their Eritrean colleagues, as well as grow and develop professionally from the cases that may be unique or completely different from what they are familiar with.
Mutual respect and shared principles
A key factor that underlies the success of health cooperation between Eritrea and China, as well as the broader relationship, is the firm commitment to the principles of mutual understanding, trust, and respect. The two countries’ approaches to international assistance and development also closely align, providing a solid foundation for their health partnership to thrive and succeed.
The Eritrean government has historically insisted on establishing genuine partnerships and cooperation, while retaining firm control of its development agenda and local implementation. It encourages assistance addressing specific needs that cannot be met internally, and that complements and strengthens, rather than replacing, the country’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a great desire to avoid crippling dependence, as well as ensure local agency and foster a strong, clear sense of responsibility for and genuine ownership of the country’s future among all citizens.
For its part, China’s own approach to assistance has considerable similarities. According to China’s Foreign Aid (2011), in providing foreign aid, “China does its best to help recipient countries to foster local personnel and technical forces, build infrastructure and develop and use domestic resources, so as to lay a foundation for future development and embarkation on the road of self-reliance and independent development.” Furthermore, China’s assistance has historically been anchored in equality and mutual benefit with no strings attached, while the country has no intention of imposing ideology, values, or development models on other countries.
The quarter century of bilateral health cooperation between Eritrea and China, which is just one dimension of their larger and still growing relationship, has been extremely positive. Not only has it helped to promote the health and wellbeing of locals while contributing to building the capacity and resilience of the national health system, it has also strengthened the longstanding bonds between the two countries.
The author is educator
and researcher based in Eritrea