This is especially true because of the recent rise in the number of cases among refugees and cross border communities in Kenya.
The neighbours, despite belonging to common regional blocs have gone separate ways in dealing with a common enemy. Kenya releases data every day on the number of infections, deaths and recoveries. But Tanzania stopped giving any data in May after the country’s President John Magufuli argued the country had overcome Covid-19 through prayers.
Uganda issues periodic data and so does Rwanda. But Burundi, another member of the East African Community has been on and off. This year, Burundi decided to go on with elections, with disregard to social distancing rules, and allowed political campaigns to go on.
The new President, Aristite Ndayishimiye brought back some testing, but it has not been consistent. Both Burundi and South Sudan have not been regularly publishing data on the number of tests and their results.
But according to data from the World Health Organisation, the region has experienced more cases in the past three months. As this table shows, there has been an inherent rise in deaths, now at 15000 (with Kenya reporting more than 1200) even as Tanzania continues to insist it has no cases.
Risky open-door policy
According to periodic figures released by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a Horn of Africa bloc of eight countries, the region has reported 245,000 cases, 4800 deaths, and 83,700 recoveries by November 29,2020. The numbers were expected to invariably rise.
Yet IGAD also showed that just about 3.3 million people have been tested so far, a drop in the ocean for a population of more than 300 million in its member countries in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Uganda and Sudan.
IGAD does not indicate the health capacity of its member states, but IGAD’s members are also in the East African Community, which shows that almost 19,000 facilities are hosting Covid-19 patients, most of them underfunded and understaffed, according to a tally posted here.
Among these countries, Kenya has reported more cases. By November 29,2020, it had about 23,300 active cases. Combined with Uganda, they had 37,000 active cases between them.
Refugees Secretariat boss Kodeck Makori worries that the open-door policy granted to refugees may become an Achille’s heel in the management of Covid-19 cases.
Congestion in refugee camps
“We are obligated to accept those fleeing danger. But are forced to stiffen our hygiene standards. Remember these areas are also congested which makes it more difficult,” he said on November 28.
“Refugees may not necessarily use ordinary border points so it is more difficult to test them before they enter the country. This means that we have to establish centres for testing in the refugee camps. But that requires cooperation,” Makori said.
Most of the refugees come from South Sudan and Somalia, according to a situational report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Kenya in March, the government stopped registering new refugees and banned visitations to refugee camps. Later, it gradually accepted more refugees, but under tight health restrictions.
Yet it was always not completely foolproof. A refugee reportedly travelled into Kakuma at the height of the lockdown in August and ended up testing positive. By November 29, at least 200 refugees at Kakuma had tested positive.
In Kakuma, however, Turkana Governor Josephat Nanok argued on December 27 that the testing itself may be problematic. According to him, samples have to be brought to Eldoret or Kisumu, 800 km away to be tested.
“It costs money and time,” he said. “That means it might cost us timely diagnosis.” Nanok said most of the cases in Kakuma had been asymptomatic, but warned those cases could easily be deadly considering refugees are very crowded and so are their health facilities.
However, the problem of refugees does not end with infections. In October, medical charity group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported that Covid-19 was fueling mental health issues among refugees.
Usually, refugees may return to their homelands on a voluntary basis. But with Covid-19, countries imposed restrictions that made it more difficult to visit and leave refugee camps. MSF reported that cases of anxiety disorder, depression and schizophrenia had been detected among refugees at Dadaab, in Garissa County.
“COVID-19 has ended what little chance refugees had of escaping their degrading lives in the camps, compounding the mental distress for many who had nothing left but hope to cling to,” warned, Jeroen Matthys, MSF project coordinator for Dadaab as early as October 9.
Matthys added that they are seeing a groundswell of desperation in the camp. “Kenya’s worry, however, is not just about refugees. Experts who analyse regional security challenges say Covid-19, like terrorism, knows no borders and could strike just as long as cooperation is ignored,” he explained.
Kigen Morumbasi, a security analyst in Nairobi told RoGGKenya that refugees and cross border communities depend on each other for trade. “That means lots of movement. If one side doesn’t consider Covid-19 a threat, it means a threat to the rest,” said Murambusi who is also a lecturer of International Relations at the Strathmore University.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistic’s 2019 Economic Survey Report , Kenya traded with neighbours 59.7 percent of the time with trade volumes with Tanzania and Uganda cumulatively standing at KSh 160 billion.
Disunity among African leaders
Governments in the region, however, insist there is Covid-19 cooperation. The IGAD Secretariat donated $700,000 to member states to fight Covid-19 and gathered its heads of state and government to draft a common protocol.
On May 12, 2020, leaders of the East African Community member states met virtually to discuss emergency response to Covid-19 as well as standardising operation procedures.
But disunity among them was obvious. A dispatch released then said “the heads of state decided that partner states adopt a harmonised system for certification and sharing of Covid-19 test results. The heads of state noted that information sharing is key during crisis such as the covid-19 pandemic and directed the ministers responsible for health, trade, transport and EAC affairs to finalise and adopt an EAC digital surveillance and tracking system for drivers and crew on covid-19 for immediate use by partner states.”
Burundi was heading into elections and it didn’t send a representative, while Tanzania also skipped the consultative meeting.
Lack of regional coordination
After that, Kenya and Tanzania engaged in a turf war over the validity of Covid-19 testing results. Uganda and Kenya also experience long traffic jams of trucks at the border over delayed testing. This is despite the launch of cooperation programme for training of airport workers.
On May 27 2020, major airport workers from the East African Community began their training on Covid-19 handling. According to a dispatch issued then, the trainings targeted airports in Mombasa, Juba, Entebbe, Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro and Kigali.
It was organised by the Civil Aviation Safety and Security Oversight Agency (EAC-CASSOA) and implemented by AMREF Flying Doctors.
CASSOA’s Executive Director Emile Nguza Arao said regional governments were keen on investing in airport surveillance to help provide early warning to healthcare systems as a preventive measure.
In theory, various networks of cooperation between countries exists. For example, there is the East African Laboratory Testing Networking project, with a volume of $128 million. However, South Sudan is not part of it.
“COVID-19 presents a classic example of why regional coordination, cooperation, and integration are key to Africa’s future,” said Deborah Wetzel, Director, Regional Integration for Africa, the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank.
“Given the ease with which diseases can spread across countries, we will continue to draw on our regional programs to support countries in managing pandemic prevention and control. The virus knows no borders, and efforts to support regional coordination and cooperation will be essential to defeating it, both in Africa and around the globe.”
What journalists should do:
- Follow up on declarations made by regional blocs on Covid-19 and their implementation.
- Investigate the disparity in Covid-19 policies.
- Report on weaknesses in the fight against Covid-19.
- Investigate what is happening at the refugee camps. Document the rate of infections, deaths and recoveries.
- Talk to refugees to share the challenges that they face during the pandemic.