Coronavirus: The Impact on Refugees

The coronavirus continues to loom over not only Europe but the entire world, as what was once something that started so unforeseeably inconsequential in China, has now escalated into an uncontrollable pandemic. The vulnerability of the already precarious lives of refugees has only been heightened due to the virus and, sooner or later, the gravity of their situation will become more widely apparent. Refugees make up 25.9 million of the 70.8 million forcibly displaced people in the world; 12 million of which are children, so it is evident that their circumstances are alarming. 

Despite COVID-19 creating panic and igniting fear in every corner of the globe, it is particularly distressing for those in countries facing civil war and unrest. When the virus eventually reaches parts of Syria, Yemen and Venezuela, there is expected to be a high death toll due to the destruction of  hospitals and the collapse of healthcare systems. The unstable conditions in Syria due to almost a decade of war, make it an easy target of viral dissemination. The decimation of the healthcare system, along with the majority of the infrastructure, only aggravates the anticipated chaos approaching. It is of great concern as to how the country would be able to control such a high level of deaths caused by the devastating coronavirus, with nearly a million displaced people subjected to overcrowded conditions and incessant fighting. 

The refugee camps

Understandably, the most pressing concern arises from refugee camps where horrific conditions pose many problems. It is believed that the coronavirus will decimate refugee communities if action isn’t taken immediately in countries like Greece, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Although no one is safe from the deadly grip of this callous pandemic, some groups are more at risk of its power than others; refugees to name but one. There are key factors behind this:

  • They tend to live in overcrowded places. With self-isolation an important measure in avoiding the spread of the virus, it is no doubt incredibly onerous to accomplish with overflowing camps that host more people than it can handle; these camps are anything but spacious. 
  • Lack of healthcare – healthcare available to those in stable positions and countries is already strained, not to mention that there are no clear precise preventions and cures for COVID-19, so, imagine this with refugees who have only basic healthcare available to them; or to make a vaster comparison, countries like Syria where hospitals have been destroyed and there is no stable healthcare system.
  • Lack of water – with regards to preventing the virus, water is the greatest asset. Washing our hands and keeping clean are arguably the most important measures to take when preventing the spread of the virus. However, with limited access to and inadequate water supplies, this proves a problem, especially in compact refugee camps. 
  • Poor sanitation – connected to a lack of water, poor sanitation does no favours in preventing a possible spread. If anything, it is a catalyst to its presence. 
  • Lack of tools – many refugee camps just don’t have the right equipment to detect and prevent the spread of the virus.

Greece

The situation in Greek refugee camps is already fraught with uncertainties and danger, but things have recently spiralled with a sudden outbreak of the coronavirus on the Greek island, Lesbos. Evidently, this has sparked fears in refugee camps, as the cramped and unstable conditions inside provide the perfect condition for a mini-pandemic. Once exposed to the virus, the chances of it spreading through inhabitants of the camps are incredibly high, however, there are very few options available. Inhabitants on the Greek island camps have no option but to live in close proximity to one another and, with their health already in danger, COVID-19 would only exacerbate the severity of their problems. 

Overcrowding mixed with horrific living conditions only intensifies the possible effects of the virus potentially sweeping through the camps. A lack of basic sanitation such as the accessibility of showering and handwashing facilities are red flags in the current crisis, given that these are triggers of the virus. Additionally, medical care along with the utmost importance of self-isolation is limited which only makes matters worse. It is believed that containing an outbreak in a camp such as that on Lesbos, would be near enough impossible; especially with no emergency plan as backup. A concise plan that includes measures for infection prevention and control, rapid identification of cases, health promotion, management of mild cases and isolation, as well as the treatment of severe cases, is of paramount importance. Yet, with none of these set in stone due to the negligence and fragility of these camps, the evacuation of 42,000 asylum seekers secluded on the Greek islands is now uncategorically necessary before problems escalate. 

Moria camp, often referred to as the worst refugee camp in the world, is on high alert. Its squalid conditions, consisting of 20,000 people trapped in a camp intended for only 3,000, is the perfect breeding ground for COVID-19. Evidently, water supplies are unreliable and circumstances critical. There is just one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap available in some parts of the camp. In addition, families of five or six are forced to sleep in spaces of no more than 3m2. It is blatant that frequent hand washing and social distancing are completely out of the question. To make matters worse, the tragic news of a recent fire that plagued the camp, doesn’t alleviate issues. It seems as though the camp is a bottomless pit of complications without any silver linings.

What is being done?

With the lightning spread of the coronavirus throughout the world, there are mounting concerns from aid agencies, refugee rights organisations and activists who are raising the alarm about the dire vulnerability of refugees. Many have received little to no help from higher authorities, but continue to strive onwards with their exceptional humanitarian work to do whatever they can to allay the troubles of those who need it most. To highlight a few:

  • Team Humanity – With little support and no intervention from the Greek government, apart from roadblocks preventing people leaving the camp, the charity Team Humanity which currently aids the Moria camp, has turned to making masks. Forty five volunteers are using a selection of cotton and plastic to produce up to 2,000 masks per day. Their mission is to supply everyone in the camp and then further their ingenious work to those most vulnerable on the island. Their frustration at lack of support has turned into a cry for help, as they also plead for donations of hand sanitisers because they “cannot rely on water in the camp”. 
  • Save the children- With 12 million refugees in the world, Save the Children is working with people in Syria to form plans of action if an outbreak were ever to occur.
  • Médecins Sans Frontières – Médecins Sans Frontières is particularly concerned with the impact of COVID-19 on those in countries with unstable healthcare systems and volatile environments such as the homeless, inhabitants in refugee camps and those living in areas of conflict in Syria and Yemen. The harsh conditions of overcrowdedness and poor sanitation are already a cause for concern, but accompanied with failing healthcare systems and ongoing war, their situation is set up for calamity; implementing preventive measures would therefore cause great difficulty.

Due to the vastness and severity of the pandemic, MSF’s response will of course be limited. With that being said, they have started an intervention for the outbreak of COVID-19 and continue to do significant work in two of the most heavily affected countries. MSF are supporting hospitals in the epicentre of the outbreak in Italy, through infection prevention, providing care and issuing control measures. In addition, they have proposed to Iranian authorities to help take care for patients suffering from COVID-19. 

Most importantly, MSF are coordinating with the World Health Organisation and local ministries of health in most countries they work, in order to see how they could offer their support with COVID-19 patients. As well as this, they provide training on infection prevention and control for health facilities in a number of countries. 

Like most obstacles that have arisen from this overwhelming situation, key supplies are insufficient. There is a great necessity for surgical masks, swabs, gloves, as well as chemicals to diagnose COVID-19. This has further led to other problems with shortages of supplies to aid other diseases due to reduced production and community lockdowns, not to mention difficulty with mobilisation due to current travel restrictions. 

It is important for us to recognise the seriousness of the situation and to do what we can to help and support, not only them, but the extraordinary charities, volunteers and workers who do whatever they can to make the lives of those vulnerable safer and better.