Homerton surgeon tackling coronavirus warns of potential West African crisis

PUBLISHED: 16:18 29 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:08 01 June 2020

Dr Leo Cheng has been volunteering on Mercy Ships for 20 years. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo Cheng

Dr Leo Cheng has been volunteering on Mercy Ships for 20 years. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo Cheng


A Homerton Hospital doctor has warned the “unbelievable” healthcare inequality in some parts of Africa could see it become the next epicentre of the coronavirus crisis.

Dr Cheng and his wife, Hilary. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo ChengDr Cheng and his wife, Hilary. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo Cheng

Dr Leo Cheng, a consultant surgeon at Barts Health and Homerton University Hospitals, knows about the lack of medical supplies from his time serving as a volunteer maxillofacial, thyroid and reconstructive surgeon on one of the Mercy Ships in West Africa.

These are floating hospitals which deliver care to some of the world’s least developed countries.

Volunteers treat patients with dental and eye problems, facial deformities like cleft palates, tumours, club feet, child-birth injuries and burns.

Dr Cheng, who has used his annual leave to volunteer with Mercy Ships for 20 years said: “I heard someone said this - ‘When the global north catches a cold, Africa gets pneumonia’.

The Africa Mercy ship is currently the only Mercy Ships vessel in service. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo ChengThe Africa Mercy ship is currently the only Mercy Ships vessel in service. Picture: Submitted by Dr Leo Cheng

“[...] The majority of the population in West Africa have informal economies, with their earnings not fixed, taxed, monitored or protected day-to-day.

“Many do not have access to sanitation, clean water supply or electricity, which we often take for granted in the developed world.

“Social distancing does not mean anything in these poor countries because many people share crowded accommodation.”

He said there were only 60 ventilators for some 80 million people in parts of West Africa.

When the coronavirus outbreak started to take hold outside of China, the Africa Mercy ship in Senegal where Dr Cheng was stationed had to close because it was not equipped to deal with a highly-infectious respiratory illness.

The shop has moored in Tenerife, Dr Cheng said: “Once the maintenance work is carried out and the global situation allows, we will return to Africa and help strengthen healthcare systems emerging from the pandemic.

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“The Africa Mercy was there for Guinea in 2016 after ebola swept across West Africa and we will be there for West Africa after Covid-19.”

Dr Cheng returned from Africa to tackle London’s pandemic on the frontline, helping Covid patients breathe by making holes in their windpipes, as well as offering some cancer surgery.

He said: “My calling to serve the forgotten poor in developing countries with the Mercy Ships for nearly 20 years now gives me the same motivation and energy to join the battle against this invisible enemy and to keep the NHS from sinking under the surge of Covid-19.

“[...] In this Covid-19 time, my work at the NHS has not only been challenging but also strangely satisfying to see colleagues working together selflessly to keep the death toll down.”

Challenges have included working while donned and muffled by personal protective equipment (PPE), alterations of surgical procedure to reduce unnecessary generation of aerosol, and extended personal hygiene.

It has also acted as a catalyst for digitalization, with telephone and virtual clinics now widespread.

“I believe that in almost all walks of life, we all have to adapt to the ‘new norm’ of working with more innovative ways of using the internet for communication and for giving or receiving assistance,” Dr Cheng said.

“In this challenging time of lockdown and uncertainties in the economy, employment and travel, I hope and pray that we as citizens of this world will come out of Covid-19 more loving and caring towards each other by being generous in helping others within and outside our own community.”

He highlighted the success story of a grandmother-of-three who recently beat coronavirus in time for her 74th birthday.

Dr Cheng said he is “extremely grateful and thankful” for the NHS, the availability of all basic utilities - such as electricity and water - and food on supermarkets’ shelves.

“Together we will come through this extraordinary global health emergency stronger and wiser,” he added.

At any given time over its 40-year history, Mercy Ships has been operating between one and three vessels. Although the Africa Mercy is currently its only ship in service, but it has a greater capacity than all prior hospital ships combined.

Find out more about the Mercy Ships vessels at

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