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Aid agencies tell of virus fears in Africa

01 May 2020

Keep the spotlight on vulnerable groups, pleads CAFOD


Medical supplies and equipment from China arrive in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 20 April, to help fight the coronavirus

Medical supplies and equipment from China arrive in Harare, Zimbabwe, on 20 April, to help fight the coronavirus

THE real impact of Covid-19 has yet to become apparent in Africa, aid agencies have warned: it is forecast that millions could die and millions more be forced into extreme hunger as the virus spreads.

The continent has recorded 35,000 cases of the virus so far, but the peak in the first wave of cases is not predicted to come until the end of this month.

A “pastoral statement to all Anglicans in Africa” from the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA), issued on Wednesday, acknowledges: “We are living in the midst of a crisis that the recent generation has never experienced.”

The statement, signed by the chairman and the general secretary of CAPA, calls particular attention to “the socially excluded, the economically and socially vulnerable groups, people in the informal sector who live the prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’”.

God, however, is “more than able to bring good out of bad situations”, they tell Anglicans; “so let us not lose hope.”

Development projects working with vulnerable communities are likely to be set back “years and years” by the crisis, the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development’s(CAFOD’s)| head of Africa, Fergus Conmee, said.

CAFOD is working with partners in Africa to adapt its programmes to respond to the pandemic, but it fears that attention and funding could be drawn away from other vital work.

“Covid is exacerbating the hardships that many are facing, and we can’t take our eye off that need,” Mr Conmee said. “In Mozambique, we are working with a local organisation that works to prevent organ trafficking; there is a big fear that Covid may create opportunities for trafficking to increase. We have to keep the spotlight on vulnerable groups.”

Approximately 70 per cent of people in employment are in informal employment, and so are most vulnerable to the economic downturn caused by the lockdown imposed by many countries.

“There is great concern not only for the public-health impact, but also the economic impact, which is going to be really severe. So many people have to earn money day to day in order to provide food for their families. An economic collapse will push people into really extreme poverty very quickly,” Mr Conmee said.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa has said that 29 million people could be pushed below the extreme-poverty line by the virus.

The charity Mary’s Meals, which offers free school meals to millions of children in Africa, has announced that it is adapting to provide food at home to children while schools are closed during lockdown.

The Church Mission Society (CMS), which has several mission partners in Africa, said that the lockdown was “almost a disaster in itself”. The CMS regional manager for Africa, Steve Burgess, said: “While there is not a lot of Covid-19 infection and death compared with the West, the fear is that it will explode in countries with few health-care resources to treat people. And this, alongside situations with refugees and displaced people, a locust invasion, drought in one part, floods in another, Ebola [virus] resurfacing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), just adds to the crisis for the most vulnerable.”

A CMS local partner in the DRC, Bisoka Balikenga, said that many communities were still struggling with ongoing conflict and hunger, and were not aware of the threat of coronavirus. “The prevention is not well known, and more people here are not aware about it. When we are talking to people from the villages, they are not aware about coronavirus,” he said.

Two CMS partners, David and Heather Sharland, in West Nile, Uganda, asked for “redoubled prayers” for the region, which had been hit not only by Covid-19 but by a locust invasion that was destroying crops.

“The locusts that were threatening in January [News, 14 February] have now bred, and the young are growing and hungry — millions of them. In Karamoja, they have caused devastation of crops, trees, and cattle fodder. With the military and everyone else concentrating on Covid-19, they are spreading westward, towards the huge refugee settlements and West Nile. If they continue west, as they seem to be now, massive hunger could weaken the population to face Covid-19, and we really wonder what might follow.

“Remember that there are other sicknesses as well as Covid-19. Some are dying of treatable diseases, as they are scared of going to the clinic or have no transport. Also, there is concern about the maternal death rate rising in Uganda, as women can’t go to their antenatal appointments or get to hospital.”

CAFOD and other charities are calling for the cancellation of Africa’s international debt to help the continent survive the pandemic. The G20 last month announced a suspension of debt payments, but more needed to be done, Mr Conmee said. He urged Christians to put pressure on the UK Government to advocate debt cancellation, but also to ensure that when and if a vaccine became available, “it will be available for all, equally.”

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