Conflict and virus: In anglophone Cameroon, fear runs deep
Everyone fears coronavirus, but for Augustine, a villager in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, the dread is especially deep.
If he were to fall seriously ill from the new virus, he would need to make a five-hour trek by road and canoe from his home in Ekondo to a health centre able to care for him.
The trip would unfold in the midst of a brutal conflict in this remote corner of Cameroon between armed separatists and government forces.
His first step, Augustine said fatalistically, would be to “pray intensely.”
Since October 2017, when anglophone militants took up arms against the French-majority state, more than 3,000 people in the Southwest and neighbouring Northwest Region have lost their lives, according to humanitarian organisations.
Around 700,000 people have fled their homes.
Healthcare infrastructure has been one of the collateral victims of the fighting — 115 medical centres have been destroyed and attacks on medical personnel are frequent, leaving people in remote areas almost stripped of defences at a time of pandemic.
In Ekondo, “we try to practice barrier gestures as much as we can, because we have to do everything possible to prevent the virus,” said Augustine, reached by AFP by phone from the Gabonese capital of Libreville.
So far, the two regions have been relatively spared from the virus — only 30 cases had been recorded as of Tuesday.
But Cameroon overall has had 2,077 cases and 64 deaths, the second highest in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa.
In addition, the country is beginning to ease coronavirus restrictions that have been especially tough for the poor, who amount to a third of the population, according to the traditional benchmark of poverty.
Restaurants and night clubs, for instance, have been authorised to re-open, and it remains possible to travel between highly contaminated and uncontaminated areas.
– ‘Not enough mortuaries’ –
If the pandemic reached remote anglophone areas, “there’s not enough (medical) workers, enough amublances, roads or even mortuaries to take care of the sick and the dead,” said Sarli Nana, who works for an NGO helping displaced people.
“Many healthcare professionals have been driven out of their jobs” and in those medical facilities which survive, “there’s a lack of equipment, medicine, water and electricity,” he said.
Aid workers are especially worried about any virus outbreak in makeshift camps that have sprung up in the equatorial forest where thousands are sheltering after the conflict destroyed their homes.
“There’s no (running) water or access to care, the conditions are catastrophic,” said Marc Serna Rius, coordinator of a local NGO called Reach Out.
“The people who are holed up in the bush are the most vulnerable of all,” he said. Many are elderly and greatly at risk from COVID-19.
Because of the poor security, access to these areas by aid groups is very difficult.
– Civilians in the middle –
On the ground, both the separatists and the armed forces seem to have turned a deaf ear to the UN’s appeal, made on March 23, for a global truce in combat zones on account of the pandemic.
“Nothing’s really changed,” said Nana.
“The separatists and the army are still carrying out attacks. People in the region are still being targeted for killings and are fleeing.”
The rebels, as well as the security forces, have been frequently accused by rights watchdogs of crimes against civiliians.
“Several separatist attacks” have been carried out since late March, said Blaise Chamango, the head of an NGO in the Southwest Region.
Last weekend, troops carried out an offensive against a separist camp in Bafut, in the Northwest Region.
In late March, the authorities announced a two-year reconstruction programme for the battered regions, including refurbishing schools, water access, thousands of homes and health centres.
A total of 90 billion CFA francs ($150 million / 136.5 million) has been earmarked — but the scheme was announced before the pandemic got into its stride and inflicted widespread disruption.