18 May 2020

COVID-19 in Guinea: No space for self-isolation


As of today, Guinea has more than 2,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases, which makes it the sixth most affected African country. The memory of the West African Ebola epidemic in 2014 is still fresh and has left the country with structures in place, easily adjustable for a COVID-19 response. However, the virus poses significant challenges to vulnerable people, such as the ones on the West African migration route . We have reached out to Brian Brady for a status report on COVID-19 in Guinea. He is a graduate from our master's programme in Disaster Management, currently working with the Danish Red Cross as a Migration Delegate in Guinea’s capital, Conakry.

Group dialogue with returned migrants in the Guinean Red Cross’ AMiRA project
Group dialogue with returned migrants in the Guinean Red Cross’ AMiRA project

Text: Morten Mechlenborg Nørulf / Pictures: Brian Brady

As the corona pandemic spreads more and more to the West African region, governments and organisations are trying to get in front of it as much as possible to mitigate the virus’s impact on societies at large and on the already vulnerable groups in the region. 

Guinea’s government declared a state of emergency on 27 March 2020 and all borders remain closed. Public gatherings of more than twenty people are forbidden and public transportation in Conakry is restricted to three people in cars, one on motorcycles, and seven to ten in mini busses. Schools, restaurants, churches, mosques and sports facilities are also closed down for the time being.

”Newer restrictions have also been put in place: it is obligatory to wear masks in public areas and the authorities have limited movement in and out of the capital region in order to stop the spread of the virus” Brady reports.

The memory of the Ebola epidemic is still fresh

According to Brady, the Guinean health authorities have been quite responsive in dealing with the corona virus:

“Experiences from the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic has left Guinea with structures in place, which have quickly been organised for action. An action plan was rapidly created, providing good leadership to local and international aid organisations already in the country, which have in return re-oriented existing support or sought new resources to face the pandemic.”

Brady further explains that the health authorities have provided good coordination, sharing of relevant and timely information, as well as messages for best practices to disseminate. The Guinean government also released a social and economic plan, including Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) projects, pilot cash transfer programmes for vulnerable households, support for water and electricity payments, guarantees to ensure stable prices on products such as hand sanitiser and masks, funds to support the creation of economic groups in the informal sector, and loan guarantees for small businesses.

However, as with many countries in the region, there are not enough resources to fight the virus in Guinea if it explodes. There is only 0.1 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants and 0.3 hospital beds. For comparison, Denmark has 3,4  physicians and 2,47 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants.

Guinea Red Cross Prefectoral Office in Mamou, Guinea.
Guinea Red Cross Prefectoral Office in Mamou, Guinea

No space for self-isolation

The general population in Guinea has responded well to the authorities’ restrictions. Businesses and residences have installed hand-washing stations in front of their entrances and temperatures are taken before entering.

“However, a general challenge in Guinea is that people here cannot isolate like in many other countries. Most cannot go more than a few days without work before they are no longer able to provide for themselves and their families. The Conakry area in particular is very densely populated - there is simply no space allowing for 2 meters distance between people in market areas” Brady explains.

Given the extent of the informal economy in Guinea, there is real concern that COVID-19 could have an acute impact on social and economic well-being. Many people in Guinea must go out to work on a daily basis to have food for the evening. In this context most do not have the possibility to stay home for a few days, not to mention weeks or months.

Migrants face hard challenges

Brady supports a project called “AMiRA” ("Action for Migrants: Route-Based Assistance") – a regional project working in Guinea, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan, seeking to ensure that migrants and returnees are protected from harm and have their dignity, rights, and needs met, enabling them to make informed decisions and experience safer migration paths.

“Migrants are specifically vulnerable during this crisis. Many have been unexpectedly stuck in other countries with border closures. They may face a series of challenges, such as discrimination, loosing contact with their families, lack of local support networks, barriers in accessing basic services, such as healthcare, and language and cultural barriers. These risks, among others, put many in a very difficult position. In Guinea we saw a significant influx of persons returning to the country in late March, as borders began to close.”

For the project Brady and his colleagues are supporting, they quickly had to adapt to working in a COVID-19 context. All staff had to be informed on health restrictions and they had to put up hand washing stations in all areas where they work. “And as you can imagine, running water is not readily available in many places” he reports.

Due to the health restrictions, Brady and his colleagues cannot do mass information campaigns on migrant rights anymore. Instead, they must prioritise smaller sessions while maintaining health safety measures. Furthermore, they are supporting Guinean Red Cross in training 300 volunteers that goes into communities to sensitise people about COVID-19, including personal and community prevention measures and demonstrations of proper hand washing techniques. This work is especially important for those who are not able to leave their homes, such as elderly people and people with disabilities.

Football match and awareness raising activity.
Football match and awareness raising activity to inform communities and national authorities on migrant rights and vulnerabilities.

Working from home creates new opportunities

People at Brady’s office are obliged to work from home, which poses significant challenges:

“We really had to adapt our usual ways of working. Many of our colleagues in Guinea are not as familiar with platforms such as Skype or Zoom and on top of this, many are still faced by frequent power cuts and interruptions to internet access. Much of our work was rather paper and in-person dependant.”

But, they are adapting, Brady explains. They have started making more payments using mobile money, paying for volunteer transport for example. Guinean Red Cross is also starting to hold online conferences and meetings, which they have never done before.

“I am hoping that some of these practices will continue after COVID-19. Conakry is notorious for its traffic jams - my commute on any given day could take between 1 and 3 hours one direction, so more online and distance collaboration is in some ways a welcomed development” Brady explains. 

Brian Brady graduated from University of Copenhagen in 2018 with a degree in Disaster Management. Read more about the programme here.