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IRC: Coronavirus testing shortfall in crisis-affected states risks undetected outbreaks, imperilling COVID-19 fight worldwide

  • New data shows countries with lowest number of tests per million include Yemen (31 tests per million), Nigeria (165 tests per million), and Northeast Syria (59 tests per million).
  • Figures in stark comparison to richer countries like US (38,394 tests per million), UK (41,599 tests per million) and Germany (42,581 tests per million)
  • IRC warns of undetected outbreaks as full toll and trajectory of the pandemic is obscured, calls for international support for increased testing, contact tracing and context-appropriate outbreak mitigation measures

Data compiled by the IRC reveals significant shortfalls in COVID-19 testing in many conflict-affected countries, highlighting the dangerous prospect of undetected and therefore uncontrolled outbreaks as the Coronavirus continues to spread globally.

According to IRC’s analysis of countries where we work, the lowest numbers of tests per million include: Yemen (31 tests per million), Chad (105 tests per million), Nigeria (165 tests per million), Mali (173 tests per million). The area of Northeast Syria is also of concern, with 59 tests per million.

This suggests an under-detection of COVID infections in these states – thereby inhibiting the necessary contact tracing, isolation and treatment of cases to control an outbreak which stems from a lack of testing ability. By way of comparison, the United States – a nation struggling nonetheless, along with its wealthy counterparts, in the fight against this virus – has carried out a total of 38,394 tests per million people of the population; the UK 41,599; and Germany 42,581.

The crisis-affected states IRC operates in with the highest COVID test positivity – where high rates suggest a far larger but undetected level of population infection – are Somalia (45%), Afghanistan (30.1%), Chad (29.30%), Mexico (28.6%), and Mali (25%). By way of comparison, the US currently stands at around 15% positivity; the UK at 11%, and Germany at 6%.

Of additional concern to IRC are crisis-affected countries for which data is either incomplete, inconsistent or absent entirely, such as YemenTanzania, and Syria – which makes tracking the spread of the virus, particularly amongst the world’s most vulnerable, all the more challenging. Data from Venezuela, where 90% of hospitals already experienced critical shortages prior to COVID, is also of concern – there is high likelihood not only of untold numbers, but of a limited flow of information on infections writ large.

Fortunately, many of the countries where the IRC works – despite the stark differences with wealthier countries in terms of resources – have shown commendable foresight in instituting early mitigation measures. These include countries like Jordan, Thailand, Ethiopia and Uganda, all proactive in terms of testing and screening, contact tracing and social distancing measures. At the same time, these social distancing measures can only be managed with confidence, and adjusted in line with changes to the context, if testing capabilities are increased. Elsewhere, notable upticks in growth rates this week alone are of concern in countries like El SalvadorNigeriaYemenAfghanistan, and Mexico – only validating fears of a growing but partly obscured pandemic.

David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said: 

“These startling figures speak to the dangerous prospect of undetected and potentially uncontrolled outbreaks in crisis and conflict-affected states. Rapid detection is essential for rapid response, and rapid response saves lives. COVID-19 has already brought the strongest health systems in the world to their knees – and we are now seeing virus hotspots growing in parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. The IRC has already warned about the longstanding humanitarian vulnerability and shocking disparity of health system capacity in these states to handle the outbreak. Far from making progress in curbing the outbreak, the lack of testing is a major barrier to even seeing the tip of this global iceberg, let alone its full and devastating scale.

“This pandemic will not come to an end here until it is under control everywhere. These countries urgently need the financial and programmatic support to significantly increase their surveillance, testing capacity and contact tracing to ensure we are capturing all information necessary to understand this pandemic – and to beat it. As part of a comprehensive and context-appropriate humanitarian response, testing and diagnostic services for COVID-19 must be available to all refugees and vulnerable groups in humanitarian settings.

“Without a truly global response, any effort, however extraordinary, to contain the virus nationally will be hampered by its spread and persistence internationally. As the Administration and US Congress consider the next round of supplemental funding for COVID-19, an additional $12 billion is needed for the international response. Urgent action is needed now to both secure additional resources and ensure that those resources reach frontline responses like the IRC’s. We are in a race against time.”

The IRC has launched a US $30 million appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations, with a focus on mitigating and responding to the spread in vulnerable communities, protecting our staff and ensuring continuation of life-saving programming.


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