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For countries in Africa suffering from conflict, Covid-19 is another strain on health systems already struggling to cope

Tackling malnutrition, providing education and developing climate resilience can’t cease, writes Harriet Baldwin MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Existing humanitarian programmes must adapt to ensure development on primary health care, clean water, sanitation and vaccination continues.

Covid-19 has been – in our Prime Minister’s words – “a nightmare” in the UK. 

We have sadly lost over 44,000 of our nearest and dearest before their time.  Across the world, health systems have scrambled to cope and the world has suffered a massive economic shock.

How then has Covid-19 affected countries in Africa that are already suffering from conflict?  If you are living in a war zone, Covid-19 is just one more threat to add to gunfire, shelling and gender-based violence. 

Covid-19 is one more strain on health systems that already struggle to cope with basics like childbirth, infant nutrition, diarrhoea, measles, cholera and widespread malaria.

Without clean water and sanitation, the hand-washing that keeps so many diseases at bay is impossible.

The British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union had an update from UK Ambassadors and High Commissioners from some of the most conflict-affected African countries and from the Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Southern Africa.

At the time of writing (July 7th), the African Centre for Disease Control has updated statistics for African nations and states that there have been 491,750 cases and 11,622 deaths.  As this includes data from an incomplete set of countries and testing is low, this is certainly a massive underestimate.

A standout example of good practice is Uganda, whose Virus Research Institute at Entebbe works closely in partnership with the London School of Tropical Hygiene. I remember when I was Africa Minister how impressed I was seeing how their Ebola testing was working.

But across Africa, especially in conflict zones, the picture is worrying. 

Somalia has minimal testing capability, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Covid-19 is widespread.  The Somali health system is weak and unprepared. The crisis comes on top of a major outbreak of locusts, climate shocks and the UN predicts that there could be a threefold increase – to 3.5 million – of people suffering from acute malnutrition. 

Worse still, the lockdown in the developed economies has led to a sharp drop in the flow of remittances from the diaspora.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is still fighting outbreaks of Ebola. Cholera and malaria continue unabated and this vast country of 100 million people has an estimated 5 ventilators.  There are over five million displaced people already in need of food, water and health care. 

In conflict-torn Cameroon, a steep increase in Covid-19 cases has been observed.

In North West and South West Cameroon, where an estimated 15 different secessionist groups are active, Unicef estimates that over 250 health facilities are out of action because of the conflict.

After a decade of conflict in North East Nigeria, civilians are still being caught up in attacks that have seen two million people uprooted from their homes. Only half of the health care facilities there are functioning and even the International Committee of the Red Cross now only admit people into an emergency ward if their life is in danger, in order to try to control the virus.

In South Sudan, physical distancing in the Red Cross hospitals has led to a 30% reduction in bed capacity.

Across African countries, 27 million refugees and internally displaced people are living in overcrowded displacement camps where physical distancing is impossible. Without clean water and sanitation, the hand-washing that keeps so many diseases at bay is impossible.

Humanitarian work cannot be allowed to grind to a halt because of this new virus. Existing programmes will have to adapt.

The development emphasis on primary health care, clean water, sanitation and vaccination must continue. Tackling malnutrition, providing education and developing climate resilience can’t cease.  And developed nations need to get back to work to restart the flow of remittances.


Harriet Baldwin is the Conservative MP for West Worcestershire.

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