In Depth

Coronavirus: the vulnerable regions that could trigger ‘rebound’ in the West

Refugees and poorer African nations could soon be most at risk

Poorer countries recovering from the coronavirus outbreak risk sparking a second global wave of infections if the West does not help the developing world, experts have warned.

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said the virus could mutate into a form that no vaccine could contain if the disease was left to spread in developing countries.

“The virus could devastate the developing world and then re-emerge where it was previously suppressed,” he said. “In our interconnected world, we are only as strong as the weakest health systems.”

The risk is to the poorer countries themselves, who would suffer the most, and also to richer countries who are ignoring warnings “as governments scramble to attend emergencies in their own countries”, says The Times.

The UK announced this week that it would donate £200 million to the global effort “to prevent a second deadly wave reaching the UK” after a UN appeal for further emergency funds failed to yield an adequate reaction.

Former foreign secretary David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said the richer nations had “two, perhaps four weeks” to support the less-developed world before the coronavirus hit it with devastating effect.

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Africa

South Sudan is highlighted by an IRC report as being particularly vulnerable to an outbreak that could spark a second global wave of infections.

The country, “which has suffered famine and widespread malnutrition, has just four ventilators for its population of 11 million, and 24 intensive-care beds”, reports The Times.

Somalia, further to the east, has 15 ICU beds for its 15.8 million population, the paper adds.

In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has just confirmed five new cases of ebola, raising fears that facilities there could become overwhelmed if it has to contend with two outbreaks at once.

The continent currently has 18,441 coronavirus cases, with 966 confirmed deaths as of Friday morning, reports Africa News. There has been a sharp rise in both cases and deaths in the last week, though rates are still far lower than in Europe.

But the WHO has warned that Africa could become the next epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, with many countries lacking the ventilators to deal with the pandemic, reports the BBC.

Bangladesh

The coronavirus outbreak could threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh, temporary home to around 860,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar.

Authorities fear that the coming rainy season will lead to sewage overflowing and flooding of the makeshift shelters.

“We are scared that the virus is killing many people around the world,” Marjuna, an 18-year-old Rohingya refugee in the Kutupalong camp, told The New York Times. “We don’t know how to stop it.”

Doctors in Bangladesh have said that in recent weeks, they have treated and lost refugee patients with symptoms of the virus.

“If we think this is a big issue in the US and Europe, we haven’t seen anything yet if Covid gets into the refugee population,” said Adam Coutts, a public health researcher at Cambridge University. “People can’t even wash their kids, let alone wash their hands.”

The Bangladeshi government unveiled a financial stimulus package worth about $8bn to help the nation’s economy and bring aid to poor people struggling to cope with the impact of the virus, reports Al Jazeera.

But “the South Asian nation has a fragile healthcare system and its medical professionals are in dire need of PPE to fight the Covid-19 outbreak,” says the news site.

Lesbos, Greece

The sprawling Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos is under huge pressure.

The 20,000 people inhabiting the unsanitary and overcrowded camp, which was built for 3,000, now have to contend with a virus that can only be defeated by physical distancing and rigorous hygiene.

“The one thing that everyone is stressing in combating the coronavirus is to create social distance but that is precisely what is impossible for refugees,” Deepmala Mahla, the regional director for Asia for CARE, the humanitarian aid agency, told The New York Times. “Where do you go to create space? There is no space.”

“It’s a disaster – more than a disaster,” Salam Aldeen, founder of the Lesbos-based Team Humanity NGO, told The New Humanitarian.

“Hygiene and sanitation conditions are unsafe,” Boris Cheshrikov, the spokesperson in Greece for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told TNH. “Many cannot see a doctor as there are simply too few medical staff.” 

Syria

The healthcare situation in Syria has been “decimated…after the repeated, deliberate bombing of hospitals by Russian and Syrian warplanes”, says The Times.

In Syrian refugee camps, patients are dying from what appears to be coronavirus, with doctors unable to help them because they don’t have the equipment, protective gear, or even beds.

Only 64% of public hospitals are fully functioning in the country, and there is a shortage of trained staff able to help with the outbreak, says the WHO.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned on Monday that the spread of the new coronavirus in Syria could quickly become critical if additional support and measures were not in place, reports the BBC.

“We witnessed people living in the open; we also saw two or three families sharing a tent which did not protect them from the cold or the rain. There were too few tents to accommodate the new arrivals,” said Ahmed, an MSF project team leader.

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