How Can Refugee Camps Cope With Covid-19?

Doctors Without Borders’ Dr. Tonia Marquardt discusses how refugee camps can cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“When our population is really living quite day to day, they can’t really, you know, just stay inside for days on end,” says Marquardt. “But it doesn’t mean don’t do anything. I think there’s still things you can do to try and delay and reduce the spread of it.”

Providing isolation facilities, making sure those who are infected are quarantined, as well as educating people on best practices like handwashing could help curb the spread of Covid-19, she says.

Throughout the rich world, leaders have urged residents to practice social distancing while pledging hundreds of billions of dollars to keep their economies afloat, paying workers who are forced to stay home and subsidizing companies that need loans to stay in business. There’s no prospect of such aid in densely packed Gaza, where the health-care system is already under strain and unemployment is above 40%. Many were left worrying just how bad it could get if the virus spreads more widely.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in March announced a $2 billion fund-raising effort to help the world’s poorest nations — as well as refugees stranded in camps by war and natural disasters — cope with the pandemic.

“These are places where people who have been forced to flee their homes because of bombs, violence or floods are living under plastic sheets in fields or crammed into refugee camps or informal settlements,” Guterres told reporters in New York.

The humanitarian aid would help install hand-washing stations in refugee camps and assist coronavirus patients in places where hospital beds are nonexistent. It also would supply tests and medical equipment to countries where travel bans have blocked the arrival of necessary goods and promote information campaigns with the help of non-governmental organizations.

A group of UN experts expressed concern that economically vulnerable people will become victims of a vicious cycle as “limited access to water makes them more likely to get infected.” Infection then leads to “illness and isolation measures, making it difficult for people without social security to continue earning a living.”

Also particularly vulnerable are the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in crowded camps in Bangladesh. A viral spread there would be “exponential and catastrophic,” said Courtland Robinson, who teaches humanitarian health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Anywhere you have high concentrations of people, a gathering of people desperate for help, you have increased risk of spread,” Robinson said. “When you say ‘stay at home,’ some people can do that. Migrants and refugees can’t. That is a fundamental dilemma.”
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