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In East Africa, a Vexing Trifecta of Challenges: COVID-19, Locusts and Floods

This time last year, countries in East Africa were leading the continent in economic growth. Now, much of that progress is at risk as the region faces a dangerous triple threat: torrential rain and flooding, voracious swarms of locusts and the coronavirus pandemic.

The three crises are compounding each other’s impacts. Border closures that were put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 have strained the supply of pesticides and other equipment to fight the locusts that have ravaged the region for months now. Food supplies that were already under siege from the pests have been further devastated by flooding that has forced over 1 million people to flee their homes. That population now faces the threat of contracting the coronavirus in the region’s crowded and often unsanitary camps for internally displaced people.

East African governments are clearly struggling as they seek to respond simultaneously on all three fronts. However, smart and timely support from the international community can help. Donors and aid agencies will need to help affected countries strike the right balance across competing priorities to save the most lives. This will require transnational cooperation, the upholding of asylum laws and proper funding for humanitarian appeals and development programs.

Tackling any one of these three crises on its own would be a formidable challenge. Consider the rapidly multiplying locust swarms that hit the Horn of Africa in December 2019 and spread across the region. The damage is staggering: Just one square kilometer of locusts consumes enough food in one day to feed some 35,000 people. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that around 1.7 million hectares of land, or 4.2 million acres, would need to be treated to control the infestation. Up to 2.5 million people could be affected, in a region where over 25 million already suffered from food insecurity. But international attention and funding have fallen short. In May, as the locusts multiplied in the Horn of Africa and spread beyond it, the FAO increased its request for funding from U.N. member states to $311.6 million, up from $153.3 million. The response is a little over halfway funded to date.

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In the midst of the locust infestation, COVID-19 hit East Africa. Subsequent border closures and supply chain issues caused initial shortages of much-needed pesticides and spraying equipment to combat the locusts, and various countries in the region imposed national lockdowns. As of July 16, there have been 1,300 confirmed deaths and more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in East Africa. Sustained effort by the World Health Organization and regional governments to coordinate cross-border surveillance, communicate proper safety advice to the public, and increase testing and treatment capacity have gone a long way in slowing the virus’s spread. But the WHO recently warned that while lockdowns have taken a tremendous economic toll, reopening could lead to an increase in cases without proper caution.

Meanwhile, in May, unprecedented flooding hit the region, killing over 300 people and displacing 1.1 million more. Weather stations throughout East Africa recorded their highest rain levels in 40 years. Floodwaters have damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, washed away gardens and farms, and ruined local infrastructure. Though aid organizations have helped thousands of households, funding appeals have fallen short by a combined $325 million in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ efforts in Ethiopia, for example, are underfunded by more than 84 percent.

The cascading challenges facing East Africa require a sustained regional and global response.

Taken together, each of these three crises is exacerbating the others and causing a greater level of collective suffering. Though East African governments have kept COVID-19 relatively contained compared to the rest of the continent, the poor living conditions of those displaced by recent flooding makes them highly vulnerable to the virus, putting an extra burden on aid workers. In Kenya, the Ministry of Health has already reported cholera outbreaks in several parts of the country—a stark reminder that even before the flooding began, some 70 percent of people in temporary camps in Kenya did not have access to clean water. Moreover, important infrastructure and buildings, including hospitals, schools and clinics, have been destroyed or damaged by the floods, further impeding the delivery of key services.

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This trifecta of challenges puts regional stability at risk. It could also exacerbate long-standing security concerns, including those of terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based extremist group al-Shabab, as those finding it difficult to sustain a livelihood may turn to militant groups for income. It is also likely that some of the most vulnerable in the region—including forcibly displaced people—will face the harshest effects of this insecurity. They are likely to be among the first to lose funding, protection and assistance from the government. Even worse, they may be scapegoated and unfairly targeted for spreading the virus, or face discrimination in housing, health care and other important services. All of this increases the risk of violence by pitting groups against one another and excluding displaced people from the rest of the population.

The cascading challenges facing East Africa require a sustained regional and global response. First, donors must step up with funding. Providing much needed injections of aid now will allow households on the margins to rebuild their homes, reseed their harvests or simply buy enough food to eat. The World Bank estimates that the locust challenge alone could cost the greater Horn of Africa region, including Yemen, as much as $8.5 billion by the end of this year. It also estimates that a rapid response will cut that loss by $6 billion. Fulfilling the FAO’s request for an additional $164 million for the locust crisis would be a good place to start, especially as the regional food crisis is set to peak from this month into September. The $325 million gap for flood-related relief and recovery must also be overcome.

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Next, East African states must uphold the principle of asylum, which includes the possibility of crossing a border to find refuge. Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Somalia closed their borders in March, and Kenya closed its borders with Somalia and Tanzania in May. These closures have profound, life-altering effects for the region’s estimated 4.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers. For many, the virus is only a secondary concern to the other threats they are fleeing. The coronavirus poses a challenge for screening and testing migrants, but that public health threat is no excuse to deprive people of their legal right to asylum.

Governments in the region also need to tailor their responses to the crises with the aim of upholding humanitarian norms and principles and reducing harm. For example, while some border closures may be justified in the name of stopping the virus, authorities need to carefully debate the trade-offs of prioritizing border closures to stop COVID-19 with halting the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance to flood- and locust-affected areas. States should consider opening up humanitarian corridors to ensure that small numbers of aid workers and experts can reach populations in need.

This trifecta of crises is putting countries in East Africa to the test, and aid workers and governments will need to make tough decisions about how to respond. More than ever, strong international support is needed to help the region avoid catastrophic consequences.

Sarah Miller is a senior fellow at Refugees International.

Kayly Ober is senior advocate and program manager of the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International.

Stefan Bakumenko is an intern with the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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