Severe flooding has caused devastation across several East African countries in recent weeks. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced in Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda and Ethiopia, with a probable death toll of around 300. Kenya has faced the brunt of the disaster, with the government reporting 237 deaths as of May 13th. The torrential rains have caused countless homes, bridges, and other pieces of critical infrastructure to be washed away, jeopardizing the countries’ attempts to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) reports that over 233,000 people have been affected since the rainy season began in March, with over 116,000 Kenyans being displaced. The OCHA and the UN emergency aid coordination office reported that at least 40,000 in Western Kenya lost their homes when the Nzoia river burst its banks on May 2nd. Government minister Eugene Wamalwa said, ‘The flood situation in the country has worsened, we have thousands displaced across the country … we are reaching out to all areas with humanitarian support, even as we come up with long term mitigation solutions.’ Wamalwa also warned that the situation may worsen, as the rainy season is expected to continue into June.
The floods have the potential to spark a health crisis in East African countries. A hospital in Kilembe, Uganda was partially washed away, trapping over 200 patients, while damage to roads and bridges are making it difficult to access health facilities. Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking refuge in makeshift camps, where it is almost impossible to maintain social distancing and over 70% of people do not have access to clean water, according to the KRCS. Poor sanitation and a lack of food, medicines and essential items are major concerns in camps, leaving displaced people vulnerable to pneumonia, bilharzia, diarrhea and cholera, which are prevalent following floods. This presents a massive setback at a time when healthcare systems across Africa must act urgently to stem the spread of COVID-19.
It is critical that governments continue to provide emergency shelter, food, and medicine for displaced people. The KRCS has requested the provision of additional shelters for displaced people to shield them from the rains while preventing the spread of the coronavirus through overcrowding. As stressed by the organization’s secretary general, Asha Mohammed, an integrated approach is needed to deal with both flooding and COVID-19. The international community should assist regional governments in providing humanitarian aid for victims, with an eye to preventing the spread of disease, particularly COVID-19.
Flooding has intensified in East Africa in recent years, caused by increased temperatures in the Indian Ocean, according to climatologist Chris Shisanya, as told to Al Jazeera. ‘We are more likely to see events like this’, said Nathanial Matthews of the Global Resilience Partnership to Reuters. ‘The oceans are warming because of climate change.’ Floods also provide ideal breeding conditions for locusts, which have devastated crops across East Africa in recent months, leaving millions hungry.
Natural disasters have grave consequences for health in both local and global contexts. If these floods allow the novel coronavirus to become endemic in East Africa, it will cause suffering for millions and greatly hinder the global effort to contain the virus. This disaster requires urgent humanitarian action, but any long-term solution to prevent the devastation caused in East Africa by natural disasters will require serious action on climate change.