OPINION: Coronavirus will silently hit the world’s displaced hardest

by Jan Egeland | @NRC_Egeland | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Tuesday, 24 March 2020 14:00 GMT

A Syrian refugee woman puts a face mask on a boy as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, in al-Wazzani area, in southern Lebanon, March 14, 2020. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When COVID-19 hits refugee camps and communities affected by conflict, its impact will be swift and devastating

Jan Egeland is Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Returning from Colombia to Norway last week brought home the stark contrast of how two countries, worlds apart, may be impacted by today’s mega- virus. Life as we know it has changed for all of us. But unlike in Europe, Colombia is home to millions displaced by internal conflict, and a health system overstretched by the influx of 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Families I met crossing the border into Colombia were already in poor health. An outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in these communities could collapse Colombia’s health system.

Venezuelan refugees and migrants come in addition to over 70 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, most of whom are sheltering in overcrowded sites with desperately poor hygiene and sanitation facilities. Across the world, eight out of ten refugees are being hosted by low or middle-income nations with relatively weak health, water and sanitation systems.

When the pandemic hits cramped settlements in places like Bangladesh, Greece, Nigeria and Iran, the consequences will be disastrous. The virus will also wreak havoc in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, where protracted wars have decimated hospitals and collapsed health systems. As we witness COVID-19’s ferocious impact on the most robust communities across the northern world, it’s clear that the impact on vulnerable communities will be even worse.

In overcrowded camps from Cox’s Bazar to Juba, people do not have the luxury of the preventive measures we take for granted. They are not fighting over toilet paper in supermarkets or bulk-buying hand sanitiser in pharmacies. Families in Afghanistan have asked our staff how they are meant to practise good hand washing if they do not even have soap.

Conditions are ripe for the virus to sweep through refugee camps and silently wipe out vulnerable communities.

Teams from my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, are on the ground in over 30 crisis-hit countries preparing for a worst-case scenario ahead of the pandemic’s arrival. We are working hard to reduce risk of infection among our 14,000 staff and to avoid spreading the virus ourselves, while at the same time scaling up our operations to enable protective measures for the people we serve.

But the clock is against us.

As health messaging across the northern world ramps up and response plans are being signed into law, refugees and displaced communities are at risk of being abandoned amid the chaos of travel restrictions and quarantines. Now is not the time to champion irrational nationalist policies. We must stand in international solidarity with refugees and displaced people. We must ramp up aid and protection during this period of widespread uncertainty.

Contingency planning for all countries must include vulnerable groups inside their borders. Of some 160 countries with reported cases of COVID-19 so far, over 34  are hosting large refugee populations. These women, children and men must be treated with equal care as citizens, and aid organisations must be enabled to ramp up relief efforts.

And when governments close borders to keep the pandemic out, they must continue to allow people fleeing war and violence in. The European Union announced the dramatic closure of its borders for a 30-day period this week. It is vital that all 26 nations inside the bloc and others outside it follow Norway’s example and make explicit exemption for asylum seekers when sealing borders. National quarantine measures can then be implemented if necessary.

My organisation is scaling up preventive programmes to the most vulnerable where we still have freedom of movement for relief workers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America. But we are overwhelmed and overstretched. There must be a serious injection of humanitarian funding so aid groups can scale up water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in camps, improve the health response, de-congest living conditions and offer isolation quarters for vulnerable groups and the infected.

Only massive action can avert a catastrophe.

The coronavirus outbreak doesn’t discriminate or play politics, and neither should the world when it comes to supporting those most at risk of contracting the illness. We must stay and show solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable in their hour of greatest need.