(Day 23 of the federal guidelines for Social Distancing)
“Social distancing is a privilege,” Sahar Tawfeeq, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq
“Just because we don’t have data doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.” Muhammad Hamid Zaman
“Everyone is very focused on what’s happening in their own country,” but this virus doesn’t respect borders.” Misty Buswell, the Middle East policy director for the International Rescue Committee.
“On a certain level, looking after your own is natural, but if that’s all you do, it’s problematic,” Muhammad Hamid Zaman
It is hard to believe that we are only into week three of the overall awareness of the Novel Coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2 which causes the upper respiratory disease known as COVID-19. For many, it seems that we have been dealing with this issue for much longer. Quarantine, sheltering in place, social distancing…all words which have had meaning in the past, now are household vocabulary.
This week I want to take a look at another facet of the coronavirus pandemic that very few people are taking seriously – the impact on refugees and the way this affects the rest of the world. This issue poses an existential threat for many nations and will continue to remain a threat if not addressed.
How does a world preoccupied with itself provide relief to the vulnerable? How do nations consumed by the overwhelming onslaught of an unseen enemy on humanity turn long enough to see the pain of those who have no home in which to quarantine; who have no healthcare system to attend to their sicknesses; who have generally poor health conditions, to begin with, and who have no means to provide for themselves?
If we are not careful we will miss this “more than meets the eye” opportunity to see to the needs of some, who without the help of those more fortunate, have little hope. Few are looking after this vulnerable segment of our global community. What will we do? How will we be part of the solution to this global problem? Will we simply elect to be part of the problem? We have a choice. We don’t get to opt out as if the problem doesn’t exist.
Here are 10 things you should know about Coronavirus and refugee people:
# 1: More than 72 million people globally have been forced by persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations to flee their homes. Of those, more than 29 million are refugees (including 5.5 million Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s mandate), of whom 84 percent are being hosted by low or middle-income nations that have weaker health, water and sanitation systems.
# 2: The biggest challenge to an effective coronavirus response is when public health systems are weak or broken as a result of conflict and chaos. According to UNHCR, as of 10 March 2020, over 100 countries are reporting local transmission of COVID-19. Of those, 34 countries have refugee populations exceeding 20,000 people, which are currently unaffected by the virus. In these contexts, prevention, preparedness, and communication are key. This is because refugees and internally displaced people often find themselves in places that are overcrowded or where public health and other services are already overstretched or poorly resourced.
# 3: It is an important reality that governments allow as equal a distribution of healthcare services for refugees and IDPs as possible, especially in countries where many refugees live in dismal conditions and there is strong anti-refugee sentiment among national authorities. It is probably going to have to be funded by the international community. The reality is that if it is not mitigated globally, the possibility of it spreading rapidly again is great.
# 4: Many countries affected by war and/or instability have porous borders, with refugees, economic migrants, and others often traveling along informal routes. These countries can have a hard time monitoring who is entering and leaving their territory.
# 5: Refugees are especially vulnerable to Coronavirus and other diseases, due to high geographical mobility, instability, living in overcrowded conditions, lack of sanitation, and lack of access to decent healthcare or vaccination programs.
# 6: Another major concern is for those areas that are hard to reach. Armed groups, checkpoints, airstrikes, and other impediments are frequently present and very often result in restrictions on humanitarian movements and operations. Carrying out operations in these areas is very difficult and sometimes impossible.
# 7: Refugee populations are often left out of disaster and epidemic preparedness planning, even at the best of times. Reaching marginalized refugees and migrants with information can also be a challenge. Refugee operations managers must work with national authorities, health ministries, World Health Organization (WHO) and partners to ensure the inclusion of refugees and others of concern into national preparedness and response plans. They should also ensure that such populations have access to accurate and relevant information in the applicable language(s) in line with the national level of preparedness. Fear has been proliferated due to the lack of information that the refugees receive. The rumor mill is the primary source of information for most refugees, though usually a fairly reliable source of information during crises, though facts can often be confused with myth.
# 8: Travel restrictions in connection with this outbreak have been put in place by individual governments and may be applied to asylum seekers, refugees and others of concern. There is a distinct need to be especially vigilant and alert to the protection risks and other consequences of the outbreak for asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced and stateless people.
# 9: There needs to be voluntary return mechanisms based on real or perceived fears of Coronavirus transmission. There should be no restrictions on freedom of movement to return home.
# 10: Refugees and migrants are often the first to be stigmatized and are often unjustifiably blamed for spreading viruses. We have seen some populist politicians across Europe who rail against migration and are attempting to draw a clear link between migrants and refugees and the outbreak, despite no supporting evidence.
The United Nations and aid organizations are now faced with the task of trying to protect the world’s 70 million displaced people from a virus that has devastated some of the world’s best health care systems. “All the basic things you need to prevent an outbreak are missing,” it’s not that camps have weak health systems—which experts warn will be overrun by the coronavirus—but that they have no health system at all.
At the most notorious camp, Moria, on the island of Lesvos, some areas have “just one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap available,” Dr. Hilde Vochten, the medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Greece, said in a statement in mid-March. “This means that recommended measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus are just impossible.”
The conditions for an accelerated outbreak are prime. There exists conditions for a perfect storm for this to become a wholesale disaster. In Moria, for example, there are 22,000 refugees fitting into a camp that was designed and funded for 3,000 refugees. There is not enough water to wash hands, even minimally. There are few, if any, doctors and medical staff available to serve even the most common of colds. The refugees in this camp have just endured a very wet winter and their health conditions are weakened already due to poor living conditions, non-existent healthcare along with standing in congested lines to receive food upwards of five hours a day. There are no cleaning facilities for showers or laundry. Eight or nine people are sometimes living in one tent. Toilets are not being cleaned.
As the first cases of COVID-19 are being uncovered Lesbos Island is ripe for outbreak. Going back to Dr. Zaman’s quote, “Just because we don’t have data doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.” People are not being diagnosed with COVID-19 because few are being tested.
In a nutshell? Refugees are stuck in almost inhumane conditions with the specter of a hidden killer knocking at their door and they have little they can do about it.
If we don’t care, who will? If we don’t help, who will? These refugees are among some of the most vulnerable in our world today. They have little to no control over these next few months of their lives.
The refugees, as vulnerable as they are will be a great challenge to the global community of leaders. It appears that we will come through these difficult times with some deep bruises and scars, but few of us doubt that we will come to the other side of this pandemic. For most of us, hope is on our side. For most of them, hope is a fading concept as each day passes with no bugle sounding and no Cavalry arriving.
Will we as Christians stand in the gap for these hurting men, women, and children? This may be our signature generational decision. Will we walk into this fray as each generation is called to do, with courage and fierce resolve? Or will we as a generation allow this opportunity to give ourselves away to those in need, escape our grasp as we hold tightly to our own security and personal need for safety? Let’s do something to help.
There are several things that you can do personally to make a difference, even if for only one person. Often people are de-motivated to do anything because they feel like what they would do would be too minuscule to make a difference. That simply is not true. Tell that to the one person whose life was changed because you decided to do something.
I have chosen to make a difference in several lives in Lesbos by contributing to a work that I know is effective. It is called, “The Peace House.” This past week the governor of Lesbos asked the director of the Peace House if he could house up to fifty newcomer refugees for at least two weeks before allowing them to go into the general population of the Moria refugee camp. The Peace House is raising $10,000 to provide food, cleaning facilities, clothing and security. I have decided that I could make a difference by contributing to that initiative. You can as well. Just click here to make a donation if you desire.
Russia Swore It Whipped the Virus, and Fox and CNN Bought It… https://www.thedailybeast.com/russia-swore-it-whipped-the-coronavirus-and-fox-and-cnn-bought-it?ref=scroll
Syria Confirms Its First Coronavirus Case: ‘It’s Our Worst Nightmare’… https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3a8eqw/syria-confirms-its-first-coronavirus-case-its-our-worst-nightmare
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: email@example.com
Many comments, especially on the Moria Camp, Lesbos are from personal phone interviews with multiple people who are either there, or who have worked there recently.