Coronavirus in Africa: how the pandemic will exacerbate humanitarian crises

Social distancing and frequent hand washing have become normal parts of our daily lives. But the truth is that access to soap, clean water and shelter for self-isolation and safety from coronavirus (COVID-19) is not a reality in many parts of world – especially in Africa,  where millions have already been left vulnerable due to ongoing humanitarian crises.

Plan International has been on the ground in various countries across the African continent since the 1970’s, and as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa grow, so must our response to prevent the spread and support those who need it most.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was already witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record. An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home due to a myriad of reasons, including ongoing conflict, persecution and climate change.

However, the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic now adds a new layer of complexity and concern for the many challenges that refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) already face.  

Why are refugees and IDPs more vulnerable?

  • In informal camps, existing health systems are usually weak and limited. They will quickly become overwhelmed.
  • There are enormous obstacles to disease prevention and treatment. There may be no access to clean water and social distancing is not realistic.
  • Measures taken to contain the outbreak are closing humanitarian spaces and preventing those in danger from seeking asylum.
  • Essential humanitarian assistance and protection may be delayed or unavailable.
  • Refugees are frequently stigmatized and are excluded from decision-making forums. Girls within crisis affected populations face additional barriers to participation and access to services such as education and healthcare, including sexual and reproductive health.  

Current Crises in Africa

Africa has the second highest number of displaced persons in the world, according to the United Nations. The continent hosts about 37% of the world’s refugees and IDPs.

Young girl stands outside her family’s tent in a tightly packed refugee camp

As an organization, Plan International has declared a Red Level Emergency in order to support the humanitarian response to COVID-19 in Africa, and around the world.

Learn about the current crises in Africa and see how we’re responding in the wake of COVID-19.

The Sahel Crisis

There are over 18,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the African continent, including in the region of the Sahel, which has been experiencing a deteriorating humanitarian crisis since 2018.

Many countries of the Sahel have been struggling with extreme climate shifts that result in recurring droughts with devastating effects on the already vulnerable populations. More recently, parts of western Sahel have also been involved in a series of conflicts that involve multiple armed groups and military campaigns.

girl in a red dress walking away from the camera in refugee camp in the desert

As a result, the Sahel crisis has triggered more than 1.1 million forcibly displaced people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

With limited access to health services, COVID-19 cases in hard-to-reach parts of Africa is one of the most considerable risks for the spread and treatment of the coronavirus.  In temporary camps across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, many of the prevention measures, such as hand washing and social distancing, are impossible to carry out. 

In response, we are working closely with health authorities and humanitarian partners in Niger to prevent the coronavirus through activities such as awareness-raising by different media in all possible languages; peer sensitization by girls’ associations, women’s microfinance groups and Alumni Sponsored Children.

We’re also providing hand-washing kits, training health workers, and supporting the logistics and coordination of supplies, as well as distributing menstrual hygiene management supplies for girls and young women.

Dignity kit from Plan International with various hygiene items
Example of contents of menstrual hygiene management kits distributed by Plan International

In Burkina Faso, our local emergency response team has assured access to essential items while also doubling down on hygiene and health messages.

The Lake Chad crisis

The protracted crisis in the Lake Chad Basin region remains one of the most severe humanitarian emergencies in the world. More than 17 million people are living in the affected areas across Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger – 10.7 million people need humanitarian assistance; more than 6 million of them are children.

The crisis has unfolded in a region beset by chronic fragility, where poverty, under-development, gender inequality, unemployment and a lack of prospects for young people fuel extremism compounded by environmental degradation and the impact of climate change.

Young girl using a Plan International Canada clean water station
Teaching children and families how to wash their hands is crucial to our work in refugee camps

Plan International’s projects in Lake Chad have always worked to deliver positive outcomes in the lives of children – especially girls – their families and their communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working closely with government agencies across the numerous countries affected by the Lake Chad crisis to ensure that those affected are prepared for the onset of COVID-19.

We are also making every effort to mitigate the impact that the coronavirus will have on refugee camps in the region. For instance, in Niger, we are working with local radio stations to inform the wider public about COVID-19 and how to prevent it.

Women and men in a small group, smiling in Africa
Youth impacted by the Lake Chad crisis are supported by Plan International to use radio to raise awareness and share information during emergencies.

In Nigeria, we are gearing up to distribute hand sanitizers, build hand washing stations and disseminate posters and banners to inform community members. We are also working with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Ministry of Health to ensure strong community outreach and engagement.

Civil war in the central African republic

Since 2012, the Central African Republic (CAR) has been decimated by a deadly civil war.

Despite the country’s significant mineral deposits and other resources, such as uranium, crude oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, lumber as well as hydropower, CAR is among the 10 poorest countries in the world as well as the worst country in which to be young.

As conflict ravages on, thousands of people have been killed and over 600,000 refugees have been displaced, the majority of whom fled into neighbouring Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Plan International is one of the leading humanitarian actors in the CAR refugee crisis in Cameroon and our work has focused on the most urgent needs of refugees. We’ve helped over 12,000 refugee families, as well as constructed over 100 temporary learning spaces so that children can continue their education in crisis.

Young children in a small classroom in Plan International temporary learning space set up in refugee camp.
A temporary learning space in Cameroon

In response to COVID-19 and its impact on the CAR refugee population, we have already begun training 40 community health workers to sensitize the wider community on how to prevent and identify the coronavirus.  

Working to protect the most vulnerable

Plan International Canada has over 80 years of experience in international development and humanitarian response and remains committed to children’s rights and equality for girls as the world navigates the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak.­­­­­­

When COVID-19 hits countries already facing complex emergencies related to conflict, food insecurity or disease, the impacts can be devasting. We are currently prioritizing support for these hard-hit communities with a special focus on girls as our research and experience shows that girls are often most at risk in times in crisis.

Girl in green top and head covering smiles while children play in the background in refugee camp

If you would like to learn more about how we are adapting our programming to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable, then visit our COVID-19 response page.

Questions related to this story: