South Sudan has 11 million residents, 24 intensive care hospital beds, and four ventilators. The country is still reeling from the 2013 civil war with Sudan that internally displaced more than 2 million people. On Sunday, South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar confirmed the country’s first coronavirus case: a 29-year-old United Nations worker who began to show symptoms on April 2.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens conflict-ridden countries with high refugee populations across Africa. Nonprofit groups already working there have shifted their efforts to try to avert a potentially devastating crisis if the disease gains a foothold.
South Sudan has imposed a six-week curfew and shuttered borders, schools, churches, and mosques. Machar encouraged people to abide by social distancing to keep the virus from spreading further. Charles Franzen, director of humanitarian and disaster response with World Relief, said emergency workers at crowded refugee camps in the country have urged some of the refugees to voluntarily return to their homes. “For all these people in camps, they’ve seen rebels as more of a problem than the virus,” he said. “Some would go and some would stay.”
Illia Djadi, a West Africa analyst for Open Doors, recalls seeing refugee families of five to 10 people living in single tents when he visited the West African nation of Burkina Faso in February. Extremist groups in the northern and eastern parts of the country have displaced many people from predominantly Christian communities. Sometimes, at least three families squatted together in an abandoned classroom.
“You can’t expect social distancing in these conditions,” Djadi said. “If [the disease] reaches these camps, it’s going to be a disaster.”
In Tanzania, Christian aid groups like Water Mission are redoubling their efforts to ward off such a disaster. The country had 32 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus as of Friday. In February, Water Mission set up a safe water system in a Tanzanian camp for refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. Water Mission is also working on a safe water project at a hospital in nearby Kasulu, which hosts some of the nonprofit groups active in the region.
George Greene, Water Mission’s president, said the team is implementing sanitary measures at water pumps such as encouraging social distancing and setting up handwashing stations, and it is identifying clinics in need of clean water access throughout the countries it serves.
Last week, Water Mission’s country director in Tanzania received a call from the nation’s water supply agency thanking the team for continuing its projects. The outbreak led several construction crews to shut down their operations, according to Greene. “Our presence is certainly something that helps mitigate the issue of fear,” he said.