Withdrawing emergency health care services amid a crisis was a difficult decision, but it was one that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) had to make after the government suspended its operations for eight months.
Cameroonian authorities have accused the aid group of helping separatist groups in the country’s English-speaking northwest region, a charge the group has strongly denied.
Laura Martinelli, MSF’s coordinator for the northwest region, where thousands of people need health care access, said MSF had seen no signs of the Cameroon government's authorization for the group to resume its activities.
“We simply cannot remain indefinitely on standby in an area where we are not authorized to do our job," she said. "But we still hope that the [Cameroonian] authorities will revise this decision for the sake of the population, because thousands of patients benefited from our free emergency services. We are therefore maintaining a liaison office to continue with the dialogue in the region and at the central level.”
Few other options for care
Martinelli said MSF would be ready to resume activities when Cameroonian authorities lift the suspension. She said the MSF presence was vital because the aid group was one of the few international medical organizations offering free care for people in need, providing 24-hour ambulance services to civilians in the northwest region.
Kennedy Tumenta, coordinator of the Integrated Mental Health Care for Humanity in Babungo, a village in Cameroon’s English-speaking northwest, said the center provides psychological care to civilians whom MSF treats. Tumenta said MSF’s departure meant that thousands of civilians caught in crossfire would be left without much-needed help.
The withdrawal of Doctors Without Borders, Tumenta said, is a setback "for organizations like ours who provide mental health services to distressed individuals, especially in this region as the crisis has increased the challenges of accessing certain basic health services. We hope that the government and Doctors Without Borders will find ways to solve this problem.”
Cameroon’s territorial administration minister, Paul Atanga Nji, who announced the suspension of MSF in December 2020, declined to comment on MSF’s withdrawal when VOA reached out for an interview Tuesday.
But in June, Cameroon’s health ministry reported that nearly 30% of hospitals in the northwest region were no longer functioning because separatist attacks, and that hundreds of health workers had fled to French-speaking towns for safety.
Government strategy criticized
Cyrille Etoga, a health analyst at the University of Yaounde, said Cameroon should know how to distinguish between the activities of a reputable international organization and groups that may be collaborating with separatists. He said Cameroon’s government should legally charge people suspected of collaborating with separatists instead of suspending MSF.
Etoga said Cameroon needs the assistance of organizations like MSF to meet the growing health needs of its citizens in conflict zones.
In 2020, Cameroon’s government accused MSF of having close relations with separatists who are fighting to create an independent English-speaking state. The aid organization strongly denies the accusations and says its only goal is to save lives.
MSF says more than 1.4 million people in Cameroon’s restive western regions need humanitarian support, where access to health care is extremely limited.
The separatist crisis that began in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2017 has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced 750,000, both internally and to neighboring Nigeria, according to the U.N.