Coronavirus pandemic hits aid work, funding across sub-Saharan Africa

Desperately needed aid for millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa is threatened as the deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeps across a continent already plagued by a flock of crises.

In some cases, social distancing and border closures prevent workers from distributing aid.

In others, funding is threatened as agencies strive to pool their resources to fight the COVID-19 hot air balloon epidemic on the continent.

The polio vaccination campaign in Cameroon has been suspended, while in Chad, a measles vaccination program has been postponed.

In Niger and Burkina Faso, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by jihadist violence, flights carrying humanitarian aid have been suspended.

In the Central African Republic, where most of the territory is under the influence of armed groups, the supply of chlorine, necessary to supply drinking water, is low.

“Some programs have slowed down or have been temporarily suspended, but most humanitarian operations are continuing,” said Julie Bélanger, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for West and Central Africa.

“We are focusing on activities vital for survival, but we are also adapting the way we work,” Bélanger told AFP.

The United Nations reports that around 76 million people in sub-Saharan Africa need help to survive and protect their health.

The coronavirus pandemic could still threaten the populations of the continent, which to date has at least 12,700 registered cases and more than 650 deaths, according to an AFP count on Friday.

Organizations quickly learn to change the way they work to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Niger, for example, food gifts are distributed in small groups to maintain social distancing, said Jean-Noël Gentile of the United Nations World Food Program.

“To reduce the frequency of food distribution, we distribute two or three months of rations each time,” he said.

“Humanitarian corridors”

One of the fears of NGOs and governments is that aid workers traveling to remote areas may take the coronavirus with them.

In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the first case of virus recorded in Goma was that of a Nigerian aid worker.

Masks, gloves and protective clothing are required by some organizations – but essential equipment is difficult to find in many countries.

“It is already quite difficult in France – you can imagine how it is in the confines of the Central African Republic,” said Isabelle Robin of the French charity Action Against Hunger (ACF).

Closed borders and restrictions on movement within countries are additional obstacles to the delivery of aid.

As a result, NGOs around the world are trying to negotiate with African authorities to allow “humanitarian corridors” or exemptions for their staff.

Money worries

But of all the problems for humanitarian work at the moment, “the most important is financial,” said a UNICEF official in the DRC, noting that donors’ attention is elsewhere now.

The UN has launched a $ 2 billion (1.83 billion euros) “global humanitarian response plan” against the coronavirus, much of which is for Africa.

Although Africa has not been hit as hard as most of the rest of the world, the pandemic is a growing threat, given the continent’s weak health systems, entrenched poverty, poor sanitation and overcrowded slums.

It is feared that the funds received to deal with the problems that existed before the start of the pandemic may now be reallocated.

This could be a harmful approach.

“It is important that we do not forget other needs,” said Maaike Hersevoort, head of the mission of Médecins sans frontières in the Central African Republic, reporting an epidemic of measles in that country.

“Extreme distress”

In West and Central Africa, the number of people in need of help has increased – even before the coronavirus reaches the continent.

There are 44 million people in need this year, six million more than in 2019, according to UN projections.

In the Sahel region, food insecurity levels are increasing and fears for the next harvest following a bad rainy season.

“We are particularly concerned about children, who become more vulnerable to illness when they are malnourished,” said Robin of ACF.

More generally, well-being in Africa could be affected by severe measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 – lockouts mean that millions of people are unable to work, and therefore more likely to fall further into poverty.

“We must not lose sight of the medium and long term impact of this crisis,” said Bruce Biber of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Central African Republic.

“People have been under heavy pressure for years, so it doesn’t take much to push them into extreme distress.”