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In the news: First cases of coronavirus lock down Nigeria's northeast

‘It’s our very, very worst fears.’

A family of 11 living in a makeshift shelter at a camp for internally displaced persons in Borno State in 2019. (Mohamed Abdikarim/ICRC)

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Nigeria’s conflict-hit northeast rose to 12 this week, as aid workers scrambled to improve water and sanitation services in the region’s overcrowded displacement camps.

The death of a Médecins Sans Frontières health worker on 18 April was the first confirmed COVID-19 case in Borno State – the centre of the conflict with the jihadist group Boko Haram. The nurse had worked in a displacement camp in Pulka, on the border with Cameroon, and had no history of travel outside Borno.

More than 100 of his contacts in Pulka and the state capital, Maiduguri, have been traced and are under self-quarantine – some having tested positive. The state government ordered a 14-day lockdown beginning on Wednesday evening.

“It’s our very, very worst fears,” Nigeria’s former chief humanitarian coordinator, Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, told The New Humanitarian. “The only saving grace in this tragedy is that [the nurse] was a local man from the state, as there is already a huge trust deficit regarding the humanitarian community.”

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Aid workers are troubled by the potential spread of COVID-19 among the roughly 700,000 displaced people living in the region’s underserviced camps after the conflict made their home areas unsafe. “We’re making decongestion a priority, but it’s not an easy task,” Eve Sabbagh, a spokesperson for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, told TNH. “It really depends on land allocation, and then being able to secure the camps.”

Handwashing stations are being installed in some of Borno’s 229 camps and “camp-like settings” and soap and a chlorine solution distributed where water is not readily available, the UN said in a statement. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, is building 90 quarantine shelters across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States to respond to the risk of COVID-19 spreading.

There have so far been a total of 981 confirmed coronavirus cases and 31 deaths in Nigeria.

– Obi Anyadike

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