Best known as the last country in the world to abolish slavery, Mauritania has failed to capture many headlines with its campaign against the latest strain of coronaviruses: COVID-19. In fact, the country has rarely featured in the news at all, given its lack of involvement in the competition between great powers that have come to dominate Africa over the last two decades. Even so, Mauritania may fast become the frontline of the international community’s ongoing war on the coronavirus. The country’s track record on public health, though, provides little reason for optimism.

Officials in Nouakchott confirmed Mauritania’s first case of the coronavirus on March 13. Five days later, Mauritanian Health Minister Mohamed Nedhirou Hamed announced the discovery of a second case. The same day, Mauritania suspended weekly markets in the east and in particular along the Malian border. On March 14, meanwhile, Mauritania’s neighbor Morocco opted to halt all flights to the ill-equipped East African state as well as 24 other countries.

Mauritania has chosen to base its strategy to resist the coronavirus in part on isolating itself from the rest of the world.

Like Morocco and other African countries, Mauritania has chosen to base its strategy to resist the coronavirus in part on isolating itself from the rest of the world. On March 4—over a week before the outbreak reached Mauritania’s shores—the country deported 15 Italian tourists who had violated a requirement to quarantine themselves after arriving in Nouakchott. The first case of the coronavirus in Mauritania – a European resident returning from abroad whom the authorities declined to identify – validated the developing country’s strategy of limiting foreign entrants.

Map of Mauritania

Map of Mauritania and its African neighbors

Despite Mauritania’s apparent recognition of the threat that the coronavirus represents, questions about the country’s ability to withstand a health crisis of this scale remain. In the past, Mauritania has struggled with malaria and Rift Valley fever, and a range of persistent environmental issues have exacerbated the country’s challenges with public health. HIV/AIDS has also continued to ravage Mauritania even as overwhelmed, ill-prepared Mauritanian officials attempt to stop it.

In 2014, Mauritania spent 3.8 percent of its $5.8 billion USD gross domestic product (GDP) on public health, $148 USD per person in a country whose population has now reached over 4.6 million. In comparison, Mauritania’s neighbors Algeria, Mali, and Morocco dedicated well over 5 percent of their GDPs to public health in the same year, yet neither Algeria nor Morocco has managed to contain the outbreak in a convincing fashion, and Mali is still bracing itself for the pandemic. If Mauritania’s better-resourced neighbors are scrambling, officials in Nouakchott will have to adapt fast.

Mauritania may need to take some of the more draconian measures adopted by other countries in the Arab world. Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all but sealed themselves off from the rest of the world. China, where the pandemic began, only succeeded in curbing the coronavirus by quarantining entire cities, provinces, and regions. Mauritanian officials could soon see themselves implementing a similar domestic policy.

Iran decided against shutting down the country in the dubious hope that the economy would benefit.

Iran has demonstrated the dangers of failing to prepare for the coronavirus with enough rapidity. The Islamic Republic decided against shutting down the country in the dubious hope that, as long as Iranians went about their daily lives, the economy would benefit even if Iran’s health system came under strain. That choice came at a steep cost: over three thousand Iranians have died from the coronavirus, and Iran’s health ministry notes that more Iranian deaths comes every few minutes. The Iranian economy too has suffered from the panic surrounding the pandemic.

If Mauritanian officials take the drastic action of shutting their country to outsiders, they will no doubt encounter difficulties in enforcing the measure. Migrants and militants have long traversed Mauritania with ease. The country sits on the route that refugees take from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the Algerian franchise of the notorious group – has recruited Mauritanians. Mauritanian officials will likely require outside assistance.

In the short term, Mauritania will have to cooperate with its neighbors to seal its borders in a bid to prevent the coronavirus from spreading between them. Algeria, Mali, Morocco, and Senegal can assist Mauritania by coordinating with it on border controls. For their part, European states would improve the Arab country’s chances in the battle against coronavirus by retrieving all their nationals from Mauritanian territory and stopping any more Europeans from traveling there. By closing itself off, Mauritania can concentrate its resources on defeating the coronavirus.

Mauritanian leaders can strengthen their campaign against the coronavirus by courting financial assistance and humanitarian aid from their allies in Beijing and Paris. China – a longtime investor in Mauritania and the patron behind the Friendship Port of Nouakchott – can lend its expertise on countering the coronavirus to Mauritanian officials. France, which colonized Mauritania in the 19th century, has an obligation to aid the many countries that compose Françafrique.

The international community has a duty to contribute to efforts to prepare Mauritania for the further spread of the coronavirus.

Like China and France, the international community as a whole has a duty to contribute to efforts to prepare Mauritania for the further spread of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO) – an offshoot of the United Nations – has worked in Mauritania for years. The Arab League can collaborate with WHO in Mauritania in addition to calling on wealthier Arab states waging their own battle on the coronavirus to help officials in Nouakchott combat the pandemic. In the war on this outbreak, all countries and international organizations are becoming allies.

The coronavirus has yet to balloon in Mauritania as the outbreak has elsewhere in Africa for the time being, but the country will need considerable assistance to overcome this health crisis. If the coronavirus has hobbled great powers such as China, France, and the United States, Mauritania will likely have to depend on well-placed friends to weather this ever-changing pandemic.