The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers the Central African health system to be among the most fragile in the world, making the country particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health protocols have been in place since March 2020. By 18 September 2020, Central African health services recorded a total of 4,782 COVID-19 cases, with 2,830 cured and 87 deaths. Individual behaviour is also of concern: despite the fragility that comes from cross-border exchanges with six countries, significant poverty, and travel required for daily needs, many people appear to harbour an illusion of security.
But given the State’s difficulty fulfilling its protective role, the population relies on civil society.
Civil society weighs in
A wide variety of civil society organisations (CSOs) are engaged in the battle on various fronts (political, religious, youth and women’s organisations: list below). Their actions focus on communication and awareness campaigns; provision of medical and protective gear, essential drugs, and test kits; and access to water and hygiene kits for the population.
“We hear about Corona, but prevention efforts are insufficient. The villages of Bania have received few hygiene kits or masks.” - Ngabilo Sylvain, chief of Dissa 1 village in Bania
CSOs conduct awareness campaigns and distribute hygiene kits to different populations; in turn, participants then transmit information to their communities. Training sessions are organised around social distancing and the distribution of hygiene kits that include buckets, soap and masks.
GEN-RCA, with funding from the Global Green Grants Fund, coordinated information and kit distribution programs to residents, also targeting Muslim women, in towns and villages around Dékoa, Kaga Bandoro, as well as in Mbaïki in the Lobaye. With support from PROPAC, CNOPCAF intervenes in a similar way with farmers’ organisations. OFCA focuses its awareness-raising and kit distribution efforts with the indigenous groups of Ombella-Mpoko, Lobaye and other prefectures.
“We do not intend to stop there, if ever we get the necessary funding for such activities. A lot remains to be done.” -Chantal Sékola, OFCA.
Networks created in other settings are being put to use; Guy Julien Ndakouzou, deputy coordinator of CIEDD and the GDRNE platform, notes that with support from the UK government and in collaboration with Fern, environmental and forest groups travelled to the South-West forest region to raise awareness of COVID-19 and to distribute kits to communities and Indigenous groups. They also used the opportunity to share updates on the Voluntary Partnership Agreement, and the revision of the Nationally Determined Contributions.
Cooperation is on the increase, in an attempt to shelter vulnerable populations. The GROUFEPA, with Marguerite Touadera, has provided the town of Boali with an HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 health centre, with funding from Fondation Orange and a private company. WWF organised voluntary confinement and food assistance with the indigenous communities of Bayanga − a population already under threat by the intrusion of traders in search of natural resources such as wild pepper, protein-rich gnetum and caterpillars.
To prepare the months ahead, CNOPCAF, with funding from PROPAC, is carrying out a study about the impact of COVID-19 on family farming − essential to food security in Central African Republic (CAR). Damala Amadou, CNOPCAF program manager, worries about the rural environment: “COVID-19 is hyper inflammatory and individuals are in contact with people from all over, not to mention that animals are vectors of transmission. The risk of contagion is always present, so there is a need to constantly remind about how impoverished rural areas are, and to recall the decisive contribution of rural women.”
A universal observation remains: financial means are lacking to implement activities, and calls for funding are frequently unsuccessful (see below). Moreover, Norma Guitinzia, coordinator of GEN-RCA, underlines that CSOs’ contribution is considerable and important, but the opacity of available funds hinders action.
“Do we need to belong to some kind of network to benefit from COVID-19 funds? Our applications are left hanging, although we meet all the eligibility criteria.”
Another concern is that such lack of transparency could awaken tensions between communities, as with the village chief who complains that assistance always goes to members of another ethnic group in his area.
Impact on the timber sector
The well-being of the communities surrounding forest concessions partly comes down to the management of shared benefits. Communities living near the Centrabois forest concession, for example, have claimed support from the Government and development partners, both to fight COVID and for other projects of collective interest. Some GDRNE members have obtained partial funding for projects, but overall, timber benefit claims made by local communities and Indigenous Peoples (LCIPs) remain ignored.
This is not an isolated example: in CAR, LCIPs cannot directly access the shared benefits from logging they are due; this ‘logging tax’ is paid to the municipality, which must invest it in projects that take into account the needs of the communities. In reality, these taxes are not used according to the rules, and are diverted from their initial objectives.
Regarding the safety of logging crews, Alfred Sépamio, Regional Director of Water and Forests, ranks the response of the forestry companies located in the Sangha-Mbaéré and Mambéré-Kadéï prefectures to COVID-19: “SEFCA comes up to 80 per cent in terms of compliance with distancing measures, followed by VICA, Thanry, STBCA. [But] some aren’t concerned: The logging crew can transport 16 people; distancing is not respected. ... Understaffing does not allow them to achieve expected education and enforcement of measures.”
As for the forests themselves, the regional director states that, “Deforestation has slowed down with a halt to felling,” although independent CSO reports contradict this finding.
CSOs are making important inroads, at considerable cost, but these nonetheless fall well below the country’s needs. To ensure a uniform response across CAR’s 16 administrative prefectures, a decentralised national strategy is needed. One difficulty lies in the multitude of villages to be served, and there is still a lack of mobile oxygen units, respirators as well as training in contact-tracing techniques. Once again, civil society seeks national and international solidarity from donors, companies and international organisations and institutions.
Acronyms of relevant organisations:
- ADIH : Association pour le Développement Intégral Humain
- APDS : Aires Protégées Dzanga-Sangha
- CIEDD : Centre pour l'Information Environnementale et le Développement Durable
- CNOPCAF : Concertation Nationale des Organisations Paysannes de Centrafrique
- Femme et Environnement BATA-GBAKO
- GDRNE : Gestion Durable des Ressources Naturelles et de l’Environnement
- GEN-RCA : Global Eco village Network-RCA
- GROUFEPA : Groupement des femmes agro-pastorales pour la lutte contre le SIDA
- Mossoro ti Kodro : Hebdomadaire d’informations, d’analyses économiques et de l’environnement
- OFCA : Organisation des Femmes de Centrafrique
- PROPAC : Plateforme Régionale des Organisations Paysannes d’Afrique Centrale
- REPALCA : Réseau des Populations Autochtones et Locales pour la gestion durable des écosystèmes forestiers de Centrafrique