HAMDAYET, Sudan (AP) – A month-long war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region has severely hampered efforts to tackle one of Africa’s most serious outbreaks of coronaviruses, as fighting has displaced nearly a million people and targeted local humanitarian services.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing the conflict between the Tigrayan and Ethiopian federal forces have fled to Sudan, where the number of viruses across the country is also rising rapidly.
More than 45,000 refugees from the Tigray conflict now live in remote parts of Sudan, where they have taken refuge in crowded camps that do not have the capacity to test or treat coronaviruses.
“COVID-19 is not comfortable on these buses,” a refugee, Hailem, said, more than 60 people were piled up from Hamdayet, on the Sudanese side of the main border crossing, to transport them to camps.
Many who stay in the camps are forced to share shelters and hold gatherings at various aid agencies to get food, money and registration. There are few face masks available for viewing or distribution.
At the Umm Rakouba camp, Javanshir Hajiyev told The Associated Press in support of the Mercy Corps that the number of breast infections was high, but that humanitarian workers had no materials to test for the coronavirus.
Few refugees see the pandemic as a primary concern, they witnessed deadly attacks when they fled Ethiopia and now live in fear of abandoned relatives.
“I just ran away from the war,” said one, Gebre Meten. “I think the war is worse.”
Gebre said the outbreak of the virus is a threat, but the harsh conditions in the refugee camps make people forget their dangers because they are hungry, hot and thirsty.
But growing cases of viruses in Sudan have raised concerns that a new closure could be imposed across the country – including measures that could prevent more refugees from crossing the border.
“People fleeing conflict and violence are also fleeing their lives,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said last weekend about the Tigray conflict. “So we have a difficult dilemma.” He added that with the right health measures, an “open border policy” can be maintained.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed claimed victory in a month-long conflict last weekend, but fighting between federal and regional forces has continued.
According to humanitarian officials, the crisis of 6 million people in the Tigray region continues unabated due to a lack of medical supplies, including those needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic is among us, despite fighting and a new humanitarian crisis,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said recently after visiting difficult health centers in the Tigray and Amhara regions.
The largest hospital in northern Ethiopia, in the capital Mekele Tigray, “is dangerous for sutures, antibiotics, anticoagulants, analgesics and even gloves,” the ICRC’s Maria Soledad said.
Ethiopia overcame 100,000 confirmed infections shortly after the start of the deadly conflict.
All humanitarian aid to the Tigray region, from medical supplies to food, has been blocked since the fighting began, until the humanitarian community and health experts became increasingly concerned. On Wednesday, the UN said it had signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government to allow aid in Tigray, but only to those areas under federal government control.
That access will take time as the fight continues.
Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said there was “a lot of concern” from aid workers as they prepared to return to the Tigray region, with little information on the impact of the conflict on local health facilities and infrastructure or the spread of the outbreak.
Ethiopian Health Minister Lia Tadesse has not responded to requests and details as to whether the ministry has received any news of new infections from the region in the past month.
“Clearly, the effective response to pandemic outbreaks is always questioned when there is instability,” John Nkengasong, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa, recently told reporters. The state of the Ethiopian coronavirus “will be very difficult to control,” he added.
As an example, Nkengasong said it took more than two years to end the recent outbreak of Ebola in eastern Congo, despite the threat of constant attacks by rebel groups against the disease despite “the best tools we have ever had”, including new vaccines.
Nkengasong said it took him less than three months to complete his appearance in the calmer west of the Congo.
Anna reported from Nairobi (Kenya).