China has plenty to gain from lending a hand to its friends battling the coronavirus in Africa. Contrary to some perceptions, that won't mean opportunistic grabs in oil, copper or arable land. The biggest prize for Beijing is political capital.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces its first recession in 25 years, and the continent as a whole is also grappling with the oil price crash and weakened currencies that have devastated state budgets. As a result of the Ebola outbreak that began in 2014, nations are better prepared than before. Still, health services are sorely inadequate, built around global financing and donor interests rather than coherent domestic policy, says Osman Dar, medical consultant and project director with Chatham House’s Global Health Programme. Barely a fifth of countries in Africa have free, universal care. The Central African Republic had three ventilators for a population of 5 million before the crisis; a handful of nations had none.

China is Africa’s largest trading partner and creditor, and Beijing moved swiftly to provide aid as the virus spread. It delivered tests, protective equipment and ventilators, assisted by the foundation of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Jack Ma. More remarkably, China endorsed a temporary freeze on debt payments agreed upon by the Group of 20 economies — unusual for a country that tends to prefer bilateral efforts. The scale and breadth of the current shock may have played a part in that decision, according to Lauren Johnston of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.