Patrick Youssef, incoming director for Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross, visits a hospital in Maiduguri where the ICRC cares for people suffering from trauma injuries from the conflict in north-east Nigeria. Photo: ICRC

In Africa, racing to slow the spread of COVID-19

The invisible threat of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is looming in the conflict zones in Africa where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works. Patrick Youssef, the ICRC’s incoming regional director for Africa, explains what it means for his organization to confront the pandemic as it continues to spread around the world.

So far, Africa has been the continent least affected by the pandemic, but if measures to contain the coronavirus are not taken immediately, it could be devastating for Africa's people and health-care systems. As we race to slow the spread of COVID-19, many African countries have closed their borders and introduced curfews and confinement rules. The whole world is struggling to cope, and we do not yet know the full extent of the economic and social crisis we will face. But wars and fighting, such as in the Lake Chad Region, are continuing unabated.

Humanitarian aid even more critical

With each passing day, we see the pandemic spreading in both the rural and urban areas of Burkina Faso. We fear it will spread further north, to places like Djibo, which have been affected by the conflict. Djibo's population has doubled over the past few months with the arrival of people fleeing the fighting. Clean water and soap are scarce; social distancing would be next to impossible.

Health-care systems across Africa could collapse under the added weight of the pandemic. In northern Mali, 93% of health-care facilities have been completely destroyed – proof that hospitals, ambulances and medical personnel all too often become targets in armed conflict. The underfunded community health centres that are left already struggle to treat common illnesses like malaria and measles. How could we expect them to test and treat people for COVID-19?

In developing countries, it's common for a family to use more than half its income to pay for food. When an epidemic, such as Ebola, SARS or MERS, hits communities already struggling to get the food they need, they are at even greater risk of various forms of malnutrition. In addition, some countries rely heavily on imported food to feed their populations, making any disruption in the supply chain perilous. The price of some basic goods more than doubled during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. So even people who don't get sick will still suffer the effects.

This is uncharted territory for us all. The World Health Organization has issued repeated warnings: theories are circulating, for example, using medications for which the science is not yet conclusive. Like many other organizations, the ICRC is doing logistical gymnastics trying to get our supplies where they're needed.

We can't let our guard down

We've introduced protocols to protect our teams' health and allow them to continue their humanitarian work. All non-essential travel has been cancelled. Some staff members are working tirelessly from home to ensure continuity. Others, who've come from countries more acutely affected by the virus, have been put in preventive quarantine to protect their health and that of their neighbours. This virus attacks everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, their social class or where their parents are from. If we don't take certain precautions, no one will be spared.

We cannot give up the fight to contain the pandemic. More than ever, the people we help every day need all the support we can give them, now and once the pandemic is over. This is not just a health crisis; it touches every aspect of our lives.

Our work in jeopardy

The environments where we work are already unpredictable and unstable, but the travel restrictions that have been put in place by many governments jeopardize our ability to get our staff and our humanitarian aid where they are needed.

There's no denying it: all our programmes will be affected one way or another by COVID-19. But our teams are proving to be agile and flexible: they've changed their plans to adapt to the challenges ahead. We will carry on taking our message to the front lines, carry on helping to protect medical personnel, providing support to health-care facilities in even the remotest of regions, distributing food and essential hygiene items to those who need them most, and strengthening infection control measures where people are already in confinement: in detention centres and camps for displaced people.

Unfortunately, we can't be everywhere, which is why we would like to create a platform for exchanging information with governments, organizations and research institutes in Africa. We'll take a "glocal" approach: adapting the global strategy to the local conditions.

For us to confront this crisis in conflict zones, we humanitarians must, now more than ever, be given the space to do our neutral and impartial work, to be allowed to keep up our dialogue and, above all, take preventive measures so that this pandemic does not reach the places that simply cannot cope.