Across Europe and North America, efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have brought many aspects of life to a halt. But social distancing and sheltering at home are not options for many communities in Africa. This is the dangerous reality in Chad, where thousands are fleeing a recent uptick in violence by Boko Haram. Many Chadians now find themselves trapped between violence and the looming humanitarian threat of a new deadly virus. Donor governments must act urgently to prevent the virus from further devastating these already-threatened communities.
Fleeing Boko Haram
On the night of March 23, the Chadian military suffered its most lethal assault yet from the militant group Boko Haram. The attack, which killed 92 soldiers and injured scores more in the troubled Lake Region’s Bohoma village, forced many to flee their homes.
When Chadian President Idriss Deby launched operation “Wrath of Bohoma” in response to the attack, the government called for populations residing around the Lake Chad Basin and along the borders with Nigeria and Niger to relocate to the center of the country in order to minimize civilian casualties. One UN official told Refugees International that more than 20,000 Chadians have already fled following Boko Haram’s attack and the government’s request to clear out. The government has yet to offer support for residents of the affected areas to relocate. As a result, communities have been forced to flee on foot. They join the country’s more than 200,000 internally displaced people and millions in need of humanitarian assistance who have suffered repeated cycles of violence in the Lake region since Boko Haram moved from Nigeria into Chad in 2014.
The Looming Threat of COVID-19
As these communities seek refuge in the interior of the country, they must also contend with the spread of COVID-19 in Chad. There are currently only 33 recorded cases of COVID-19 in country. However, the real figure is likely much higher, given the limited access to health services across the country. With its poor health infrastructure and limited resources, Chad is among the countries least prepared for COVID-19. As the virus collides with inadequate state and humanitarian infrastructures, we will undoubtedly witness deadly consequences. While the Chinese government is supporting Chad’s struggling COVID-19 response, significant funding, equipment, and expertise gaps remain for efforts to prevent and mitigate the spread of the disease. It’s only a matter of time before the virus appears within the country’s displaced populations.
It will be extremely difficult for most Chadians to comply with even the most basic guidance of how to avoid infection. For the thousands of people fleeing violence, “social distancing” measures are moot. There is safety in numbers, and people are unlikely to want to distance themselves from their communities when they are at risk of attacks. Likewise, hygiene recommendations are challenged as people move inland away from the country’s main water source. IDPs are also being forced to leave established camps with water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, and humanitarian health centers. Immediate action must be taken by aid groups, with donor support, to quickly relocate the much-needed infrastructure and facilities.
Prospects for a properly resourced COVID-19 response in Chad are grim. The United Nations (UN) has launched a global appeal to combat the spread of coronavirus in more vulnerable countries. As of April 21, only 30 percent of its $2 billion target has been met. In Chad, humanitarian efforts are chronically underfunded. Last year, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan appeal only garnered 58 percent of the necessary funding. The 2020 appeal is only 8 percent funded. The water, sanitation, and hygiene sector is only 6 percent funded, and the health sector only 0.8 percent funded. With intensifying violence, increasing humanitarian need, and the threat of COVID-19, such insignificant funding is worrying. As governments allocate funds to grapple with their own outbreaks of the coronavirus, they must urgently increase—or at the very least maintain—yearly funding levels for crucial humanitarian aid in countries like Chad.
If Chad’s most at-risk citizens are to be spared the worst of the epidemic, more must be done. To begin, efforts to prevent and prepare for the arrival of the virus, in both new and existing displacement camps, must be bolstered. Donors and donor governments alike must immediately support aid groups, especially those intervening in the health and water, sanitation, and hygiene sectors. Those with weapons should heed the UN Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire. And we must all fight the pandemic with solidarity. That means not forgetting the most vulnerable.
Photo Credit: © UNHCR/Oualid Khelifi