In the Nabadoon camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Asho Abdullahi Hassan, a 40-year-old mother of seven, has heard about the coronavirus on the radio.
“I am very scared about this deadly virus. I only heard about it from the news. It is like we are waiting for death to come,” she says.
The camp hosts about 3,000 families, most recently displaced from Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region following an intensification of fighting and US airstrikes.
Humanitarian activists are warning that it may be impossible to stop the spread of the virus in such places, where sanitary precautions are difficult and social distancing impossible. In Nabadoon, few can afford soap and water is rare.
“This can get very bad. It will be hard,” said Patrick Youssef, deputy director for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Our fear is that governments will seek to protect those they see as their own populations and people … in refugee camps will be left to fend for themselves.”
The spread of coronavirus in Africa has been much slower than in Europe and Asia, but the World Health Organization is concerned about a steep rise in cases across the continent in recent days.
The WHO’s Africa region – sub-Saharan countries plus Algeria – had recorded 990 confirmed cases and 23 deaths as of Tuesday morning.
Prisoners and other detainees, such as those in detention centres for migrants, are also a concern, said Youssef.
Uganda, which has nine confirmed cases, hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, with more arriving every day from from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, to a lesser extent, Rwanda and Burundi.
Professor Pauline Byakika, a specialist in infectious diseases at Uganda’s Makere University, said prevention and control were key to fighting the virus in the crowded conditions of most refugee camps.
“This is a highly infectious disease,” Byakika said. “They are crowded, they don’t have handwash facilities – they don’t even have hand sanitisers – [and] distance between one patient and the other is so close.”
Jane Ruth Aceng, Uganda’s minister of health, said that any case of Covid-19 in refugee camps would be treated like outbreaks elsewhere.