Africa: Conflict-Ridden Regions Face Another Existential Threat in COVID-19

In the West African country of Burkina Faso, rising insecurity has shuttered dozens of health clinics and left just three capable of carrying out coronavirus testing.

In nearby Chad, a COVID-19-triggered drop in crude prices could translate into problems paying the Sahel region’s most powerful army fighting an Islamist insurgency.

And in nations ranging from Mali to the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, years of unrest have weakened governments, deepened hunger and malnutrition, and left crowded camps of displaced people with scant access to health care and hygiene services.

If experts fear the coronavirus may deal Africa an outsized blow, the continent’s conflict-torn regions are particularly vulnerable, analysts and humanitarians say.

“They are now facing two wars,” said Laurent Bossard, director of the Sahel and West Africa Club for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “And these two wars will be interlinked in many ways.”

So far, the continent has reported just a few thousand coronavirus cases, and no major outbreaks yet of the kind being endured in China, Italy and the United States.

But experts fear the cases could multiply rapidly, even as the continent risks potentially shrinking peacekeeping operations and humanitarian support from donor countries fighting their own battles against COVID-19.

Calling for urgent action, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned this week that Africa’s conflict areas would bear the brunt of a potentially “devastating” impact of COVID-19 on the continent.

“We’re particularly worried about Africa, because it’s a continent marked by conflict and violence that haven’t stopped” with the coronavirus, said the ICRC’s Dakar-based spokeswoman, Halimatou Amadou.
Yet another humanitarian crisis?

Spreading unrest, much of its generated by Islamist militants, has led to the closure of more than 100 health facilities this year alone in Burkina Faso, according to the ICRC, while 20 percent of those centers have been partially or completely destroyed in neighboring Mali.

To the east, decades of war in South Sudan have left just one physician for every 65,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

In the Horn of Africa, health experts fear a coronavirus outbreak in conflict-ravaged Somalia, with 2.6 million displaced people, could be one of the world’s worst, according to humanitarian group Refugees International.

The ICRC, for one, is working with local partners in Africa’s conflict zones to spread community awareness about the disease through media spots, flyers and small focus groups. But the challenges are tremendous, Amadou said, including the many areas rendered no-go zones through insecurity.

“We’re trying to think of ‘out of the box’ solutions to reach these populations,” she added.

Some conflict areas have a few advantages. In the Sahel, for example, unrest has limited circulation and cut off affected communities from capitals that could potentially be hard-hit by the pandemic.

The DRC also emerged from a devastating Ebola outbreak last month that may have better prepared health workers to deal with this latest health crisis.

“One of the forces of Africa is it’s a continent that has unfortunately been hit by different epidemics, and where the medical structure is used to working with very little means,” said the ICRC’s Amadou. “We have medical staff who are very inventive, who find solutions adapted to the local context.”

Military setbacks  

Although United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a “global cease-fire” while fighting the pandemic, few armed groups in Africa appear to be listening.

Late last month, Boko Haram militants killed almost 100 Chadian troops in an ambush on a Lake Chad island, dealing N’Djamena’s military its deadliest blow yet. Boko Haram also killed nearly 50 Nigerian forces the same day.

With 1,000 troops committed to the French-supported, five-nation G5 Sahel campaign fighting the Islamist insurgency, Chad is facing another serious threat: an economic crunch from tumbling oil prices, which is also hitting Nigeria hard.

“Will the Chadian government be able to pay its forces in the future?” asked the OECD’s Bossard.

“From a security perspective, it really is a significant liability,” said Pierre Englebert, international relations professor at Pomona College in California and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council research group. “The Chadians are pretty much the only local military that’s really capable in the region, so it would leave the French with no serious partner there.”

For their part, it’s unclear whether many rebel and insurgent groups will feel economic pain from the coronavirus. In the Sahel, for example, a number survive through activities such as smuggling, kidnapping, and facilitating migration movements, Englebert said. He doubts they will be hard hit.

In DRC, the myriad rebel groups depend on small-scale activities like artisan mining. They, too, would be marginally affected by a coronavirus-driven global recession, he added.

Foreign impact  

France recently announced it would pull some of its forces from Iraq due to coronavirus concerns but has said nothing about withdrawing its 5,100-person counter-insurgency operation in the Sahel.

Last week, France and several other European countries announced the creation of a new special forces initiative in the Sahel, due to be fully operational next year.

But the coronavirus may prompt other international forces to scale back, even temporarily, analysts say. That includes the United States, which is already mulling troop cuts.

While the coronavirus may not directly impact Washington's decision, “I can only imagine it could precipitate it, could accelerate the rhythm of disengagement,” analyst Englebert said.

For its part, the U.N. has also asked nine troop-contributing countries affected by the coronavirus to delay their rotations to peacekeeping missions, many of which are in Africa. In South Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers are also taking steps to limit their potential exposure to the virus, including cutting travel to the field, according to Refugees International.

The U.N.'s peacekeeping headquarters in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts also fear richer nations fighting the coronavirus and its fallout at home will fail to step up with the humanitarian assistance desperately needed for Africa to confront the pandemic, especially in conflict-affected regions.

Referring to the Sahel region, Bakary Sambe, of the Dakar-based research group Timbuktu Institute, warned the European Union of the dangers of being solely fixated on the bloc’s economic survival.

“The day the sanitary barricades are lifted, we’ll be confronted by the scale of the disaster,” Sambe told the Mondafrique investigative website.

“And we’ll realize, once again, that the Sahel’s vulnerabilities also concern Europe,” he added, “if only on the question of collective security, migration, and the fight against terrorism.”

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