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In the news: Coronavirus now a “pandemic”, new risks for ongoing crises

‘Just as the DRC appears to be near ending its worst Ebola outbreak, a new virus is threatening the health of its citizens.’

(Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash)

As World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, new cases were emerging in countries already facing humanitarian emergencies, underscoring the risks for people in crises.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, and Bangladesh all recorded their first coronavirus cases this week – part of a global outbreak that reached more than 100 countries and sickened some 120,000 people by 11 March.

Congo’s first coronavirus case comes just a week after the country’s last Ebola patient was discharged. That milestone moment was the start of a cautious countdown to declaring the end of an Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 2,260 people since August 2018. 

“It is sad to hear that just as the DRC appears to be near ending its worst Ebola outbreak, a new virus is threatening the health of its citizens,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation's regional director for Africa.

However, the epidemic surveillance, screening, and response programmes rushed into place for Ebola may help the country prepare for the coronavirus, the WHO noted.

In Burkina Faso, spreading violence has forced the closure of more than 100 health centres, leaving more than 1.1 million people with limited or no access to medical services. The country confirmed its first two cases this week.

And, in Bangladesh, roughly 900,000 Rohingya live in tightly packed refugee camps, where the spread of disease is always a risk regardless of the coronavirus threat. Bangladesh announced its first three cases this week.

Read more → Mapped: Where the coronavirus has spread

The new infections come as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, launches a $33 million appeal to help refugee and displaced populations prepare. Refugees and migrants are often missing from disaster preparedness planning, or unable to access healthcare systems.

The UNHCR plans include working on surveillance in Bangladesh, boosting hygiene and education programmes in camps in Kenya and Iraq, and sourcing protective medical equipment in Iran – where coronavirus cases have surged by the thousands since mid-February, and quickly spread to a growing list of countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon.

“The world’s response to the Covid-19 crisis must encompass and focus on all, including those forced to flee their homes,” the agency said.

- Irwin Loy

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