Letter from Guinea: “Chez nous, C’est la peur”, COVID19 in One Of The Poorest Countries In The World

Reflections on the impacts of COVID-19 in Guinea, by Cindy Wilhelm, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, UK.


Exactly one year ago I arrived in the capital of Guinea, Conakry. Researching mining sector reforms in the former French colony located in West Africa, I made unforgettable experiences while getting to know the country and its people. And I learned very quickly that life in Guinea is not easy. The lack of water and electricity in the capital, the poor hygiene and overcrowding in spaces like transport or markets, and horror stories from hospitals (including my own experience in hospital) have left a deep impression on me. A common Guinean saying states that public hospitals in Guinea are “butcheries” that are places you go to die.


One of my first thoughts that struck me when the pandemic began to reach Europe was ‘please not Africa. Please not Guinea.’ One by one, the disease reached countries on the African continent, and Guinea was one of them. As of 12 May, 2,146 people have tested positive in Guinea, with a death toll of 11 and a fatality rate of 0.5% according to the John Hopkins University.


If we believe these numbers, Guinea is seemingly doing well. The fatality rate and death toll are relatively low compared to other countries. Even compared to its neighbours like Sierra Leone or Senegal, things seem to look brighter in Guinea.


Ebola has left its experiences in Guinea. The national health agency Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire (ANSS) that is a legacy of Ebola oversees the provision of information, testing, and is a central point that everyone with symptoms needs to contact.


The epicentre of the disease is in the capital, and three treatment centres have been installed. The central government in Guinea has been quick in its response. The airport has been shut down and commercial flights suspended, a nocturnal lockdown imposed, the use of masks was declared mandatory in public, and the whole city of Conakry is put under quarantine making it seemingly impossible to leave or enter.


Yet, one of my Guinean friends tells me “chez nous, c’est la peur”, here there is fear. The fear that the deadly virus will continue to spread and leave the capital and reach the poorest communities in the interior of the country.


There are a few things that speak in favour of Guinea having an advantage facing the disease compared to the experiences in Europe. The Guinean population is extremely young, and life expectancy low. COVID experiences so far and research suggests that individuals older than 65 are significantly more at risk to die from the disease. The 2018 census in Guinea shows that only 3.64% of the Guinean population is 65 years or older. In contrast, 23.3% of the Italian population is over 65.


The NGO Mining without poverty (AMSP) distributes water containers, soap and disinfectant in the mining region of Mandiana. © Association Mines Sans Pauvreté, used with permission


However, Guineans live in proximity in small spaces together. It is common that numerous families share only a few rooms, and to my knowledge, the concept of care homes for the elderly does not exist. Guinea is also heavily impacted by HIV and diseases like Malaria, Dengue, Tuberculosis, Typhoid are omnipresent. Many Guineans might have an immune system that is already under constraints and that might leave them more exposed to the disease.


Yesterday I joined a webinar on the coordination of communication and information campaigns to reach communities in Guinea where NGOs shared their strategies. I asked the panellists, among which two were Guinean doctors, if there was any special attention paid on informing Guineans about who is more vulnerable and who might need special protection. The response was that unfortunately, there was no such strategy yet.


COVID exposes the structural weaknesses encountered in Guinea on a daily basis. Der SPIEGEL reported from a hospital in Conakry and a nurse told the newspaper that even without COVID the hospital does not have enough material. She is very pessimistic and feels left alone. During Ebola West Africa had the support of the international community, but now they fear that there will not be any assistance. Le Monde asks “How can it be justified to the population that there is only one single ventilator in the public hospitals in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where the first case has been diagnosed in mid-March?”

AMSP Staff providing information about how to protect yourself from the disease in communities in the Mandiana area. © Association Mines Sans Pauvreté, used with permission


Not only medical materials are a problem. The government announced on 06 April that it would cover the costs of water and electricity for three months due to the pandemic. This is quite ironic, considering that there is simply no water access, even in ministry buildings in Conakry. And the tap water that might be available is certainly not safe. And at this time of the year right before the rainy season the hours per day without electricity significantly outweigh those with electricity access. Even the Donka hospital that is one of the COVID treatment centres did not even have running water access until only recently. The Guinean news site Guinéenews regularly reports about the catastrophic situation and lack of capacities in hospitals to treat COVID patients.


NGOs and the private sector have been quick in taking matters into their own hands. International mining companies provide the communities in their areas and government institutions with equipment like masks, hand sanitizer, soap, but even ventilators. The NGOs that I know well that usually work in the field of civil society responses to mining activities were also quick in reaching out to their communities to provide information, but also vital resources.


AMSP Staff providing information about how to protect yourself from the disease in communities in the Mandiana area. © Association Mines Sans Pauvreté, used with permission


One of the issues discussed in the webinar, but also that my friends and informants are concerned about, is the lack of information. The centrally provided information is in French, which particularly older people and those without literacy skills in the villages cannot understand. Information in local languages has been slowly spread, and again NGOs have been key. What also concerns me is the spread of fake news that I observe myself, but that also the NGOs are worried about. Dubious remedies against the disease, or the rumour that corona is a virus of white people or travellers only circulate widely.


I fear that despite the Ebola experiences and the possible demographic advantage, COVID may expose this catastrophic infrastructure in Guinea further and lead to a tragedy. If the disease spreads further in Conakry and reaches the most vulnerable communities in the rest of the country, the worst might be yet to come.


References and Further Reading:

ANSS. 2020. ANSS Comment se protéger du CoronaVirus? https://anss-guinee.org/welcome/


BBC Afrique. 2020. Coronavirus en Guinée: Eau, électricité et transports gratuits. BBC Afrique 04 April 2020 https://www.bbc.com/afrique/region-52202558

Doré, T. 2020. Riposte au COVID-19 en Guinée: la CBG répond à un besoin essentiel de l’ANSS Guinéenews 08 May 2020 https://www.guineenews.org/riposte-au-covid-19-en-guinee-la-cbg-repond-a-un-besoin-essentiel-de-lanss/

Dowd, J. et al. 2020. Demography science aids in understanding the spread and fatality rates of COVID-19. PNAS Brief Report www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2004911117

INS. 2018. Publication INS annuelle, http://www.stat-guinee.org/images/Publications/INS/annuelles/La%20Guine%20en%20chiffre3%20-%20site%20-%20AB3.pdf

Moscovici, B. 2020. Coronakrise in Westafrika “Ebola war furchtbar, aber Corona könnte viel schlimmer werden“ Der Spiegel 11 April 2020, https://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/coronavirus-in-westafrika-ebola-war-furchtbar-aber-corona-koennte-noch-schlimmer-werden-a-e160cecc-0283-4ff1-9a0e-912afc17998c

Sow, N. 2020. Exclusif- Gestion sanitaire et financière du COVID-19 en Guinée: l’ONG ALIMA brise le silence! Guinéenews 02 May 2020, https://www.guineenews.org/exclusif-gestion-sanitaire-et-financiere-du-covid-19-en-guinee-long-alima-brise-le-silence/

Tilouine, J. 2020. En Afrique, le coronavirus met en danger les élites dirigeantes. Le Monde 03 April 2020 https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2020/04/03/en-afrique-le-covid-19-met-en-danger-les-elites-dirigeantes_6035384_3212.html

Touré, N. 2020. Face au COVID-19, les leçons d’Ebola et du secteur minier en Guinée. OECD Development Matters 04 May 2020 https://oecd-development-matters.org/2020/05/04/face-au-covid-19-les-lecons-debola-et-du-secteur-minier-en-guinee/

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