Africa: Coronavirus, Conflict Threaten Millions Across West and Central Africa

Displaced women and children gathered at an IDP site in Paoua, Central African Republic (file photo).

Geneva — The U.N. refugee agency warns millions of people across 21 countries in West and Central Africa are facing a potential humanitarian catastrophe because of armed conflict and the impact of coronavirus as the pandemic spreads throughout the region.

West and Central Africa have one of the largest displaced populations in Africa. More than nine million people have been forcibly displaced by conflict and extreme weather events related to climate change.

The U.N. refugee agency warns the growing spread of the coronavirus will worsen the already acute humanitarian crisis throughout this volatile region.  So far, more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19, including more than 100 deaths have been reported to the World Health Organization from all 21 countries.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch says all cases and deaths have occurred within the host populations. So far, no cases have been reported among the displaced. But he warns this could change rapidly as the virus does not discriminate among people.

He told VOA aid agencies fear this deadly outbreak could spread wildly unless steps are taken to prepare and prevent this.

"As violence continues, as displacement continues, as people are forced to be in crowded situations without any access to water or sanitation, so economies being affected, this could be really a lethal mix with COVID," he said.

Baloch said the UNHCR is stepping up efforts across West and Central Africa to protect the millions of vulnerable refugees and internally displaced people.  But implementing preventive measures is a race against time.

"Resources are needed for sure and joint efforts as well.  That is why our appeal that no set of population can be left out in this fight against the virus because even leaving one group could have deadly consequences for all of us," he said.

Baloch said aid operations in the region face numerous obstacles as armed conflict in West Africa's Sahel region is creating insecurity and limiting access to people in need.

He said limits on international movements from complete to partial border closures and other restrictions related to COVID-19 also are hindering humanitarian efforts.

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