Ethiopia’s conflict stokes humanitarian, virus crisis

HAMDAYET, SUDAN (AP) — Ethiopia’s month-long war in its northern Tigray region has severely hampered efforts to fight one of Africa’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, as the fighting has displaced almost one million people and strained local humanitarian services to the breaking point.

Tens of thousands of those fleeing the conflict between Tigrayan and Ethiopian federal forces have crossed into neighbouring Sudan, where countrywide virus numbers are also rising rapidly.

More than 45,000 refugees from the Tigray conflict are now living in remote parts of Sudan, where they have taken shelter in crowded camps that have no coronavirus testing or treatment capabilities.

“With COVID-19, it’s not comfortable in these buses,” said one refugee, Hailem, who said over 60 people were crammed onto the transport that took them from Hamdayet, on the Sudanese side of a main border crossing, to the camps.

Many staying in the camps are forced to share shelters and crowd together in lines for food, cash and registration with different aid agencies. There are few face masks to be seen — or available for distribution.

At the Umm Rakouba camp, Javanshir Hajiyev with aid group Mercy Corps told the Associated Press (AP) that the number of chest infections was high, but that humanitarian workers had no materials to test for the coronavirus.

Few of the refugees see the pandemic as their first concern, having witnessed deadly attacks as they fled Ethiopia, and now living in fear for family members left behind.

“I just escaped from war,” said one, Gebre Meten. “I think the war is worse.”

The virus outbreak is a threat, Gebre said, but the drastic conditions in the refugee camps make people forget its risks, as they face hunger, heat, and thirst.

But Sudan’s growing virus cases has raised concerns that a new countrywide lockdown could be imposed — including measures that could stop further refugees from crossing the border.