A spike in deaths in refugee camps in Darfur, western Sudan, has sparked fears about coronavirus’s invisible spread as the elderly fall sick and die at extremely concerning rates, officials have said.

Nationwide, Sudan has reported 6,879 coronavirus infections and 433 deaths, according to the health ministry. Of those, 193 cases and 54 fatalities have been confirmed across Darfur, a figure experts believe is a significant lower than the true figure.

Doctors in the region’s few functioning hospitals report an influx of patients with symptoms like a lost sense of taste, breathing troubles and fevers, the Associated Press reported. The official causes of their deaths remain unknown.

“People in the camps are suffocating, they can’t breathe,” said Mohamed Hassan Adam, director of Abushouk displacement camp in North Darfur.

Just a corner of the camp saw 64 unexplained deaths in one month, he said. His four neighbours, all in their sixties, grew feeble and died one by one. “They get exhausted then they die. There is no way to tell what happened,” he said.

Dr Abdullah Adam, a radiology doctor, said he knew of 47 people who died the past month after showing coronavirus symptoms in villages around Kabkabiya, near El-Fasher.

We’re losing a whole generation, said Gamal Abdulkarim Abdullah, the director of Zam Zam camp, adding he had documented the deaths of 70 people over the past week.

When El Fasher, in north Darfur, saw a spike in over 200 mysterious fatalities in just two weeks, officials launched an investigation and around 50 fatalities were attributed to Covid-19, but this was believed likely an undercount.

Bangladeshi UN peacekeepers provide masks and hand sanitizers to people in El Fasher, North Darfur. Photograph: AP

Doctors in West and Central Darfur provinces also reported an unusual increase in deaths.

Some camps in the north saw 10 to 15 people a day dying the past week, compared to the normal rate of 5 to 10 a month, said Adam Regal, a spokesman for a local organisation that runs some camps.

Authorities are scrambling to curb the spread of contagion amid a fragile democratic transition after protests last year toppled longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir. There are limited medical facilities in the region where years of conflict have left some 1.6 million people in refugee camps.

The sharp mortality increase in Darfur is mostly linked to Covid-19, although not purely, said Dr Babikir El Magboul, the director of the health ministry’s emergency and epidemiology department.

Amidst the pandemic, people with other illnesses are struggling to find treatment, while local authorities have clamped down on reporting.

After two female journalists published an article about the high mortality rate in El Fasher and the lack of protective equipment for doctors, they were promptly harassed and threatened with arrest by a military officer, according to the Darfur Journalist Association.

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