At Carry the Future, we are concerned about the welfare of everyone during this pandemic. As we’ve been reminded, the entire human race is connected. Those reminders have come to us in many ways—through the ways we’ve shown unity but also through the ways particularly vulnerable groups have been affected.
Refugees are indeed one of the most vulnerable populations that are being impacted through this pandemic. Over 70 million people are currently displaced and 25.9 million of them are refugees, according to the UNHCR. Currently, 199 countries have known cases of coronavirus. Host countries are now, more than ever, faced with a critical task of caring for their refugee populations.
Refugee camps find themselves facing several obstacles in the fight against the virus: proper education about the illness and its transmission, inability to have proper quarantine or social distancing, and lack of access to water and sanitizing solutions. To further exacerbate the existing problems, some camps do not have internet access, meaning they are relying solely on those working the camps to communicate (in their language) any correct information on the pandemic. Other factors, such as fear of deportation, may cause some to not seek medical attention.
However, public health experts believe the real risk is not that refugees will infect host country citizens, but that the hosts will infect vulnerable refugees. The virus seems to hit the immunocompromised and the elderly the worst, which creates a fatal combination for refugees who may be malnourished and have preexisting health conditions.
The World Health Organization’s guidelines for Covid-19 include washing hands, social distancing, isolation for those infected, and reporting early signs and symptoms. Most, if not all, of these measures are nearly impossible for refugees in camps.
Currently, UNHCR reports that ten refugees have been reported to have tested positive for coronavirus, thus far. Whether that is due to lack of testing is unclear. Reports say that those with similar symptoms to Covid-19 are prevalent in camps throughout the Middle East and Europe and are spreading rapidly. Unfortunately, most camps have no tests and few PPE supplies, if any; often this is because of low supply or the inability to get these supplies due to armed conflicts in surrounding areas.
According to the UNHCR, the best way to combat the virus is prevention. Organizations have learned from previous epidemics like Zika and SARS that, “Preventing or delaying outbreaks, particularly among the most vulnerable, is the most important action we can take right now. Even if there was only a small number of acute COVID-19 cases, there would be limited access to the high level of care needed for the most severe cases. Prevention is the best way to protect refugees and host communities.”
Most countries are taking similar approaches in taking basic steps for prevention in the camps. “If possible, carrying small hand sanitisers around with you at all times, or just simply not touching your face if your hands are unwashed… It’s difficult… but there are small things that can be done to help mitigate the problem,” says Dr. Mohammed Jawad.
Bangladesh has taken a step in preventative measures of quarantine by closing the camps to outside visitors.
Greece is taking another approach. Doctors Without Borders has called for an evacuation of the Greek Islands where asylum seekers and refugees from Syria are camped. At least one Greek citizen was confirmed to be the first case of COVID-19 on the island of Lesbos. Some of the Greek camps, like in Moria, hold only one tap to provide water for 1300 people. Soap is limited or nonexistent. Out of necessity, five to six families are crammed into sleeping spaces about three square meters wide. The camps on the Greek island have a nearly impossible situation of following guidelines. However, the suggestion for evacuation does not mean sending refugees back to the dire situation in Syria. The hope is to resettle the refugees into safe places on the mainland where they can practice good hygiene and effective social distancing.
In February, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) drafted a collaborative strategy in response to the global COVID-19 outbreak. The plan includes trainings, simulations, mapping, risk assessments, and sanitation and hygiene services. The 17 million dollar plan would support countries in need of these potentially life-saving services for refugees and asylum seekers. Aid organizations, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), know that if Covid-19 is to be eradicated, refugees must be considered into the equation. Therefore, a joint commission of WHO, IFRC, IOM, and UNHCR has issued an immediate Covid-19 Response plan and protocol for camps, slums, and shelters worldwide.
Important steps are being taken to ensure prevention and stop the spread with collaborative efforts amongst local leaders, the UNHCR, and aid organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
In Kenya, Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps have increased the distributions of soap to aid in proper hand washing and developed campaigns and training programs.
In Iraq, Arabic educational materials on the transmission and prevention of COVID-19 are printed in Arabic and publicized in camps.
While in Bangladesh, the UNHCR is working with community partners to prepare, monitor, and case-manage the illness in the Rohingya refugee population.
In Iran, collecting and distributing sanitary and hygiene items along with masks and thermometers occurred.
“We now live in a world where major public health threats like this one cannot adequately be managed without making sure that everyone, including migrants, is taken into account in preparedness and response efforts,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino. As we take precautions to ensure the health and safety of our communities, we must remember those most vulnerable populations and do what we can to help them.
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