HAMDAYET, Sudan (AP) – Ethiopia’s one-month war in the northern Tigris region has severely hampered efforts to fight one of Africa’s worst coronavirus epidemics as fighting displaced nearly 1 million people and tightened local humanitarian supplies.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing the conflict between the federal forces of Tigranes and Ethiopia have fled to neighboring Sudan, where the number of viruses across the country is also rising rapidly.
More than 45,000 refugees from the Tigris conflict now live in remote parts of Sudan, where they have taken refuge in overcrowded camps without access to coronavirus testing and treatment.
“With KOVID-19, it is not comfortable in these buses,” said one refugee, Hailem, who said more than 60 people were overwhelmed by the transport he took from Hamdejet, the Sudanese side of the main border crossing, to the camps.
Many campers are forced to share shelters and crowds together in queues for food, money and registration with various aid agencies. There are several face masks that can be seen – or available for distribution.
At the Um Rakuba camp, Javanshir Hadziev, with the Mercy Corps charity, told the Associated Press that the number of chest infections was high, but that aid workers did not have coronavirus testing materials.
Few refugees see the pandemic as their first concern, as they witnessed deadly attacks when they fled Ethiopia and now live in fear for family members.
“I just escaped the war,” said one, Gebre Meten. “I think the war is worse.”
The outbreak of the virus is a threat, Gebre said, but the drastic conditions in the refugee camps are forcing people to forget their risks as they face hunger, heat and thirst.
But growing cases of the virus in Sudan have raised concerns that a new blockade could be imposed across the country – including measures that could prevent further refugees from crossing the border.
“People fleeing conflict and violence are fleeing for their lives,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said of the Tigris conflict last weekend. “So we have a difficult dilemma.” He added that with the right health measures, an “open border policy” could be maintained.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed declared victory in a month-long conflict last weekend, but fighting between federal and regional powers continued.
According to aid officials, the crisis in the 6 million-strong Tigray region remains critical and medical supplies are in short supply, including those needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic is still with us, despite the fighting and the new humanitarian crisis that follows,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said recently after visiting health centers in Tigray and neighboring Amhara regions.
The largest hospital in northern Ethiopia, in the capital of Tigray, Mekele, “dangerously weak sutures, antibiotics, anticoagulants, painkillers and even gloves,” said Maria Soledad of the ICRC.
Ethiopia surpassed 100,000 confirmed infections last month, shortly after the start of the deadly conflict.
All humanitarian aid to the Tigris region, from medical supplies to food, has been blocked since the beginning of the fighting, to the growing plight of the humanitarian community and health experts. On Wednesday, the United Nations said it had signed an agreement with the Ethiopian government to allow access to aid in Tigray – but only in areas under the control of the federal government.
That approach will take time as the fighting continues.
The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, Jan Egeland, said aid workers were still “very worried” as they prepared to return to the Tigray region, where little is known about how the conflict affected local health facilities and infrastructure or the spread of the epidemic.
Ethiopian Health Minister Leah Tadese did not respond to a request for comment or details on whether the ministry had received any news from the region of new infections in the past month.
“It is clear that the effective response to pandemic epidemics is always challenged when there is instability,” the director of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Johnon Nkengasong, told reporters recently. The coronavirus situation in Ethiopia “will be very challenging to control,” he added.
As an example, Nkengasong said it took more than two years to end a recent Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo under constant threat of attack by rebel groups despite having “the best tools we have ever had” against the disease. , including new vaccines.
The end of the later epidemic in more peaceful western Congo, Nkengasong said, took less than three months.
Anne reported from Nairobi, Kenya.