Battling Covid-19 in humanitarian "black holes"

Soldiers on their truck in Bur Haqaba, Somalia (credit: Keystone)

Like the uncharted regions in space, humanitarian “black holes”” are those earthly areas embroiled in conflicts and often inacessible to state health services or even humanitarian relief agencies - due to economic or political reasons. Even so, the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD), which specializes in conflict mediation, has developed strategies to reach communities in these zones. The emergence of Covid-19 in jihadist-controlled zones of Africa is testing their mettle.

Why is this important? Past experience has demonstrated that these opaque pockets serve as reservoirs of disease, which can trigger resurgence. In the case of polio, millions of dollars have been spent on elimination, but the goal remains elusive as long as the virus remains dormant in areas of the Middle East or Africa, only to re-emerge sporadically in children that weren’t vaccinated. In the case of Covid-19 in Africa, concern centers around hard-to-reach regions of nothern Nigeria, the Sahel and Somalia, often characterized by weak state health structures and controlled by militant Islamist groups. Alexandre Liebeskind, HD’s Nairobi-based Regional Director for the Sahel, Great Lakes and Francophone Africa, explains:

“We feel that we cover our territories fairly well, which avoids an 'unknown-unknown' situation, but there is one big exception. Jihadist groups in the Sahel, West Africa (Nigeria) or Somalia don't give a damn about Covid-19; or they even intend to take advantage of it.”

An opportunity for jihadists.

  • Narrative: the virus is a divine punishment that falls on Westerners and traitors among them.

  • Opportunism: Jihadist groups see this crisis as a disruptive element for states, an opportunity to increase their military efforts and to stir social unrest in the wake of the huge economic setbacks seen by African economies. .

  • Identity: being ruthless is a trademark.

  • Nature of the virus: these groups, mainly located in rural areas, do not see the effects of Covid-19 and refuse state and foreign actors access to territories where it may be present.


"As with polio, it's a disease that you don't see; there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating amongst jihadist groups who don't see how it is a problem.”

In the past, in Afghanistan, Humanitarian Dialogue was finally able to make a breakthrough when the Taliban were hit by polio, and saw their own children suffer. Now the challenge is to carry those lessons to Africa - although in the case of Covid-19 impacts are on elders as compared to children.

Challenge for the humanitarian community. Relief groups that reach out, often fail to maintain their neutrality and independence of action vis a vis jihadist groups, and that can even foster more problems over time. Relief groups may face risk of financial blackmail or hostage-taking, while aid fails to reach the communities in need. Liebeskind :

"There are real [black] holes like in northern Nigeria, in the Sahel, in Mali, in Somalia, where humanitarians have made compromises that go against all principles of sound action. They use intermediaries in the hope that they can act without a presence on the ground, without an independent assessment of needs and action. The consequences are a pretty high price to pay.”

No matter how much they declare their neutrality, humanitarian groups are perceived as emissaries of Western values; so when they reach out, they are are inevitably seen by jihadists as having an “agenda” conflicting with their own; this remains problematic.

"The agenda is increasingly ideological, it's true. There needs to be a real collective reflection on how to regain access to these jihadist areas.”

What works?

Accessing communities - not territories. According to Liebeskind, the essential thing is access to communities, sometimes more than to physical territories. A community is defined as a group that speaks the same language. In Africa, there are between 1000 and 2000.

"The only thing that holds together in Africa when all else fails is the community fabric. Communities are the political fabric of the continent. »

Each community has its own “diaspora”, with community members present in many major African capitals. Liebeskind:

"Working with their leaders gives you a pretty good idea of what's going on on the ground. Thanks to them, it is possible to mediate local conflicts. To give voice, like the town criers in the Valais in the 1950s, it works.”

There are three types of communal leadership:

  • Nomads or transhumant (seasonal) herders: In the Sahel (Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Fasso and Chad), there are more than 1000 nomadic community leaders.

  • Religious leaders: There is a network of 200 religious leaders and more than 1000 youth organizations in the Sahel. Particularly important in Muslim territories, they provide access to madrasas [religious schools], and mosques.

  • Armed groups: Community-based self-defence militias and political insurgents in countries in conflict. They are structured and therefore capable of transmitting information. For example, in the Central African Republic, 14 armed groups control 80% of the territory.

Negotiations. To access communities on the ground, you have to negotiate humanitarian security guarantees or state services. In fact, dissident groups can still often be quite receptive. HD has negotiated humanitarian ceasefires or the adoption of declarations of solidarity, where dissident or rebel groups committed to prevention and cooperation with state health services and humanitarians.

Sanitary cordons. In past epidemics, sanitary cordons around epidemic outbreak areas were more common than generalized lockdowns. After the current Covid-19 lockdowns are lifted, it is likely this approach will be preferred in the event of a resurgence in specific areas.

To compensate for the weakness of the state's health services, external actors - Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organization and UNICEF - typically enter such areas, treat and then retreat. The downside: it’s difficult to do this in jihadist areas.

Relying on African resilience. As long as there are no established and functional structures, there will be a resurgence and re-emergence of humanitarian black holes.

Yet, while Covid-19 cases are steadily increasing, including in conflict-ridden areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, the rise in cases has been more gradual than what was seen in Asia, Europe or the Americas. Is this because Africa took aggressive action ahead of the outbreak, e.g. with many countries ordering strict lockdowns? Or is it because the average age of its population is 20 years-old, or even 15 year in the Sahel? While the risk of the virus penetrating those “humanitarian black hole”" areas that state health and humanitarian services cannot reach remains real, the experience so far may also reflect Africa’s resilience. It may bolster the confidence of African leaders and people in their ability to cope with a threat that has hit developed countries even more severely.