Burkina Faso struggles against COVID-19 and extremist threat

In this photo taken Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Amado Compaore sits outside his house days after his wife Rose Marie Compaore died from the new coronavirus, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso is one of Africa's nations hardest hit by the coronavirus with one of the highest number of fatalities in sub-Saharan Africa.

The last time Amado Compaore saw his wife, she asked him for a phone charger so she could text friends and let them know she was OK. She died just hours later.

Rose Marie Compaore, 62, Burkina Faso’s second Vice President of the parliament, became the first person in the West African country to die from COVID-19.

“It’s very very difficult … My love and my life has left,” said Compaore, looking downwards outside his house in the capital, Ouagadougou.

Days after her death last month, Compaore’s four children arrived from Montreal, Canada, where they live, to be with their father. Since then no health workers have informed the family what protective measures to take, he said.

Burkina Faso is one of Africa’s nations hardest hit by the coronavirus with 41 deaths, one of the highest number of fatalities in sub-Saharan Africa. Among the country’s 629 cases are the U.S. and Italian ambassadors as well as at least six government ministers. By contrast, neighboring Mali has about half as many cases and half as many deaths.

While the government has quarantined infected towns and imposed a night to dawn curfew, challenges remain.

Burkina Faso, with 20 million people, was already suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis fueled by attacks linked to Islamic militants and local defense groups. Almost 840,000 people are internally displaced, 2 million are reliant on aid and more than 130 health centers have closed according to the government and aid workers.

Health workers on Burkina Faso’s frontlines say they lack funds, trained staff and equipment and worry the outbreak will get out of hand.

“If many, many people are contaminated, we can’t control our cases,” Zekiba Tarnagda a virologist in charge of the National Influenza Reference Laboratory, which conducts all the country’s tests for coronavirus, told us.

The country has two testing labs, but it can be days before results are available.

The delay prevents doctors from providing timely patient care while increasing the possibility that infected people, unable to self-isolate, are transmitting the virus onto others, said Tarnagda. Families live close together, often sharing one-room houses without the space or the financial means to isolate.

Doctors say the lack of personal protective gear is putting both staff and patients at risk, said Alfred Ouedraogo chairman for the doctors’ union in the country. Only the emergency response team at Tengandogo hospital — designated for coronavirus patients — gets protective gear. About 50 doctors were confirmed positive this week, although Ouedraogo suspects the number is likely higher.

Local journalist, Issaka Lingani spent 10 days in Tengandogo hospital after being diagnosed with the COVID-19 and is now recovering. He said there were “serious inadequacies” at the hospital. Staff were exhausted and badly protected, at least two doctors contracted the virus while he was undergoing treatment, he said. He also confirmed reports that patients lacked food, water and showers.

As movement around the country is restricted, humanitarians worry they won’t be able to continue providing lifesaving support to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in often hard to reach areas.

Health workers answering the coronavirus hotline in Ouagadougou complain that they receive many prank calls, which clog their phone lines, as well as regular threats from “terrorists,” said Emmanual Drabo a Red Cross volunteer.

“They call and say after they’re finished killing the soldiers in the north, they’re going to come and kill everyone here,” he said.

A dramatic rise in extremist violence has thrown Burkina Faso into crisis but now the virus has distracted attention from the attacks in the country’s rural areas which displaces more people, said Flore Berger, a Sahel research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Covid-19 is like a black hole, all other information gets engulfed in it,” she said. “We often see that when one event monopolizes everyone’s attention, the focus shifts towards short-term emergency plans. While long-term efforts and initiatives related to the security crisis become a secondary concern.”

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