HAMDAYET, Sudan (AP) – An Ethiopian month-long war in the northern Tigray region has stalled efforts to fight one of Africa’s worst cases of coronavirus, as the fighting displaced nearly one million people and strained local humanitarian services to ‘ r break point.
Tens of thousands of those fleeing the conflict between Tigrayan and Ethiopian federal forces have crossed into neighboring Sudan, where virus numbers across the country are also rapidly increasing.
More than 45,000 refugees from the Tigray conflict now live in remote parts of Sudan, where they have taken shelter in overcrowded camps that lack the testing and handling capabilities of a coronavirus.
“With COVID-19, it’s not comfortable in these buses,” said one refugee, Hailem, who said over 60 people were stranded on the transport that took them from Hamdayet, on the Sudanese side of a main crossing the border, to the camps.
Many who stay in the camps are forced to split shelters and break together in lines for food, cash and registration with various aid agencies. Few face masks are visible – or available for distribution.
At Umm Rakouba camp, Javanshir Hajiyev with the Mercy Corps support group told The Associated Press that the number of chest infections was high, but that humanitarian workers had no materials to test for the coronavirus.
Few of the refugees see the pandemic as their first concern, having witnessed deadly attacks as they fled Ethiopia, and now living in fear of the family members left behind.
“I escaped war,” said one, Gebre Meten. “I think the war is worse.”
The virus outbreak is a threat, says Gebre, but the shocking conditions in the refugee camps make people forget its risks, as they face hunger, heat and thirst.
But Sudan’s growing virus outbreak has raised concerns that a new lockdown could occur across the country – including measures that could prevent further refugees from crossing the border.
“The people fleeing conflict and violence are also fleeing their lives,” UN head of refugees 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 borders policy” could be maintained.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced victory in the month-long conflict last weekend, but fighting between federal and regional forces has continued.
According to humanitarian officials, the crisis in the Tigray region of 6 million people remains critical, with medical supplies running low, including those needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic is still with us, despite the fighting and a new humanitarian crisis unfolding,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross recently after visiting struggling health centers in Tigray and neighboring regions of Amhara.
The largest hospital in northern Ethiopia, in the Tigray capital of Mekele, “runs dangerously low on preservatives, antibiotics, anticoagulants, painkillers, and even gloves,” said ICRC’s Maria Soledad.
Ethiopia surpassed 100,000 confirmed infections last month shortly after the deadly conflict began.
All humanitarian aid to the Tigray region, from medical supplies to food, has been hampered since the fighting began, to the growing misery of the humanitarian community and health experts alike. On Wednesday, the United Nations said it had signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government to allow aid access in Tigray – but only to those areas of it that are under the control of the federal government.
That access will take time, as the fighting continues.
The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said support workers still have “many concerns” as they prepare to return to the Tigray region, where little has been known about how the conflict has affected local health facilities and infrastructure , or the spread of the cases.
Ethiopia’s health minister, Lia Tadesse, did not respond to a request for comment and details on whether the ministry has received any updates from the region on new infections over the past month.
“Clearly, an effective response to pandemic outbreaks is always challenged when there is instability,” Africa’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention director John Nkengasong told reporters recently. The state of coronavirus in Ethiopia will be “very challenging to bring under control,” he added.
As an example, Nkengasong said it had taken more than two years to bring a recent case of Ebola in eastern Congo under constant threat of insurgency groups despite having “the best equipment we’ve ever had” against the disease , including new vaccines.
Nkengasong ended a later outbreak in the more peaceful western Congo, to take less than three months.
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.