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Surrendering Africa to this scourge means it will never be controlled

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Relief: Concern distributed hygiene kits containing soap, detergent and sanitary pads to 84,000 people in displacement camps in northern Iraq this month. Picture: Concern Worldwide

Relief: Concern distributed hygiene kits containing soap, detergent and sanitary pads to 84,000 people in displacement camps in northern Iraq this month. Picture: Concern Worldwide

Concern Worldwide

Relief: Concern distributed hygiene kits containing soap, detergent and sanitary pads to 84,000 people in displacement camps in northern Iraq this month. Picture: Concern Worldwide

The coronavirus has brought all the world to a standstill but it's not the "great leveller" that we have heard about.

An indiscriminate virus increases the risks for those who are already vulnerable - individuals, groups and societies. Now, as the coronavirus spreads in Africa, some of the world's poorest countries are facing catastrophe.

In Ireland, we responded to the virus by assuming that everyone is at risk, and everyone is a risk to others, especially older people and those with underlying conditions.

The scale of that challenge in Africa - particularly in countries where malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDs are widespread - is even more immense.

Although Africa's population is younger than that of Europe, the health systems in almost all African countries are vastly under-equipped.

Last month, the HSE ordered 900 ventilators in addition to the 1,229 machines already in use in Irish hospitals.

Meanwhile, the Central African Republic, with a population of 4.5million, similar to that of Ireland, has just three. Sierra Leone, with almost eight million people, has a single functioning ventilator.

Many African countries have acted quickly in implementing preventative lockdowns. However, the suspensions of movement and business bring an almost immediate economic and food security crisis.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 500 million people live on less than $1.90 (€1.74) a day. They are mainly dependent on the informal sector for income - if they don't earn, they don't eat.

Right now, the window for action is the most important thing. Africa is estimated to be roughly a month behind Europe.

While there were 10,000 recorded cases across the continent as of last week, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicts that most African countries will have each reached 10,000 cases by mid-May.

Models vary and they are inherently speculative but they should not be ignored because the consequences of doing so could be devastating.

If there is one strategy that is increasingly discredited it is "herd immunity". The UK is now suffering the devastating consequences of just considering the option for a short period.

We know that this virus is most devastating in centres of dense population. London, Madrid, New York, and Dublin are the centre of their nation's outbreaks.

While Africa has a far higher proportion of its population in rural areas, overcrowded settlements with no public services in cities such as Nairobi and Kinshasa leave the people little opportunity for social distancing.

Even more compromised are those forced to flee their homes because of war or natural disaster - such as in South Sudan where more than six million people are already experiencing severe food insecurity, many of them still crammed into vast displacement camps.

Responding in contexts like these is daunting and complex but it is possible, and it can be life-saving.

In countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the same channels of community mobilisation and hygiene sensitisation used to fight Ebola are now being used to channel messaging on the coronavirus.

This week, our Concern teams distributed soap, detergent, and hygiene kits to 84,000 displaced people in camps in northern Iraq; improved basic water systems and distributed safety masks in the prisons of Afghanistan; drilled wells in the Central African Republic, and intensified "wash your hands" campaigns in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Malawi. 

In Niger we are converting Concern vehicles into temporary ambulances.

In the refugee camps of Cox's Bazaar we have initiated social distancing and hand sanitation at nutrition treatment centres and accelerated our therapeutic food rations to ensure that malnourished children experience no breaks in their treatment.

In the fragile, conflict-affected countries where we work there are no government-led systems of social welfare that cover all citizens. However, ambitious humanitarian response infrastructure does exist and is designed to be scaled up quickly in times of emergency.

Using mobile money technology, these systems are critical in providing basic social protection, allowing families to access vital supplies while sustaining local markets and small businesses.

Two years ago, when ferocious drought hit, it was these timely cash injections that prevented millions of people from slipping into famine across the Horn of Africa.

Today these are some of the practical strategies we will need to scale up immediately.

Concern's efforts are part of what is now a global humanitarian response to minimise the overwhelming impact of this virus, but the timing is critical.

Scaling up our operations is essential now and for that, resources will be urgently needed.

We cannot afford to delay or to be defeatist. To surrender the vulnerable to this virus in Africa would not only be a moral catastrophe, it would also mean the pandemic is never brought under control.

Dominic MacSorley is the chief executive of Concern Worldwide. To learn more about Concern's work and to donate visit www.concern.net

Irish Independent