Thousands of civilians fleeing a violent insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province have sought shelter in a coronavirus hotspot, hampering efforts to contain infections, the Red Cross warned Wednesday.
Jihadist militants have been operating in gas-rich Cabo Delgado since 2017, launching sporadic attacks on towns and villages in a bid to establish a caliphate.
The insurgents have grown bolder in recent months, and remain in control of a key port in the town of Mocimboa da Praia seized on August 12.
More than 1,500 people have been killed and at least 250,000 displaced since 2017, many of whom have found refuge in the regional capital Pemba.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned arrivals into the city could “help propagate” Covid-19.
“Most of the displaced find shelter with families or relatives, putting an additional burden on them and increasing… overcrowded conditions,” the ICRC said in a statement.
The group noted that “thousands of people” had fled to Pemba “by foot, boat or road” this year, with more expected in “coming weeks” following last month’s attack on Mocimboa da Praia.
“People fleeing armed conflict in Mozambique are trading this life-threatening danger for the risk of COVID,” said Raoul Bittel, ICRC’s head of operations in Pemba.
Cabo Delgado has the third-highest number of coronavirus cases in Mozambique, with 599 of the country’s 4,039 confirmed infections to date.
The ICRC has been operating in the region since 2018 and opened a 400-bed coronavirus treatment centre in Pemba on Wednesday.
“We hope we will not have to make full use of the infrastructure but in case this becomes necessary all conditions are set to respond,” said Basilio dos Mwelus, the ICRC’s head of planning for the province.
“This is particularly important in… Cabo Delgado with a high number of displaced people and greater concentration of population particularly exposed to the risk of contamination,” he said.
Cabo Delgado’s insurgency has increasingly hampered humanitarian assistance in the area.
Both the ICRC and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) suspended operations in the northern town of Macomia in June after Islamist militants destroyed a health centre and maternity hospital there.