As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world, the poorest countries have by far fared the worst. In part, this is due to a lack of resources. Contact-tracing, testing, isolating the sick, and even basic medical treatment for coronavirus patients, often require high levels of technical expertise, and of course money —both of which are sorely lacking in the developing world.
Nowhere has this pattern been more apparent than in the impoverished nations of Africa. In early May, the UN alerted the world to the unmitigated spread of Covid-19 in the Sahel, the semi-arid region that straddles the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian Savanna. The challenge presented by the pandemic is not only due to poverty and scarce resources. Countries in this region have for years been plagued by major destabilising issues such as large-scale human displacement and armed conflict. Today, the Sahel is home to one of the largest displaced populations in the world with about 880,000 in Burkina Faso and more than 220,000 in Mali. Lack of funding and upkeep has left significant portions of healthcare services inoperative. In Mali, a staggering 20 per cent of the country’s hospitals are damaged.
Even where infrastructure exists, instability makes a concerted public health effort extremely difficult. Violence in the region is largely attributed to land rights disputes between pastoralists. Every year, thousands of civilians from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria are killed in bloody inter-communal violence. The porous borders allow for extremist and criminal networks to run trafficking operations in drugs and weapons and recruit for their organisations.
The danger of the pandemic is compounded by food insecurity. Despite continuous efforts to address food insecurity in the Sahel, 29 million people were identified as food insecure according to findings of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Of that number, some 9.4 million suffered from severe food insecurity.
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The dysfunction in the Sahel has left the most vulnerable open to exploitation. Children are at an extremely high risk of sexual exploitation, forced marriages, and being drafted into armed groups. With the disruptions produced by Covid-19, the young have become more exposed. According to Norwegian Refugee Council, a staggering 12 million children were forced out of school across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger due to coronavirus restrictions. Insecurity also prevented up to 775,000 primary school students from attending school the entire year.
With the devastation in this region mounting daily, international organisations have increased their support. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for instance, recently earmarked about 13.2 million dollars to its operational budget for the Sahel. Similarly, World Food Programme has continued to ramp up lifesaving assistance, reaching more than 3.4 million people in August alone.
However, disjointed investment by international agencies isn’t enough. On October 20, the UN Secretary General António Guterres made a desperate appeal to help combat the crisis. According to Guterres, UN agencies have noted the needs in the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have reached record levels due to rising violence and insecurity which have been only exacerbated by Covid-19. “We need to reverse this downward spiral with a renewed push for peace and reconciliation,” he said.
Echoing the UN’s stance, ICRC president Peter Maurer also called on world leaders to come together to address the current dire needs of the region. “Government budgets are strained globally due to the health and job repercussions of Covid-19, but it’s clear that this region of the world needs assistance to alleviate the crippling consequences of both armed conflict and climate risks,” he said. Several leaders have already answered the call. A recent humanitarian ministerial round-table concluded with 24 governments and institutional donors pledging more than $1.7 billion to scale-up humanitarian aid in the central Sahel region.
Instead of simply providing essential aid such as food and fuel, the money has been allocated to address the systemic problems facing the Sahel such as the lack of agricultural and pasturing lands, health care facilities, and educational institutions. “There’s enormous potential in the Central Sahel,” said the UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock.
While added instability brought on by the pandemic has rocked this already volatile region, the current situation presents a tremendous opportunity for the Sahel. With support, the people of the southern Sahara can rebuild critical infrastructure and begin bringing about a flourishing future.
Mr Owusu is a geopolitical analyst based in Tema, Ghana