As the coronavirus (Covid-19) spreads, the media focus has mainly centered on government action such as the response of the US government which recently passed a massive emergency spending bill. But there are also large concentrations of refugee camps across the world. These people already face economic hardship, are often politically marginalized, and have fewer resources with which to combat the coronavirus. If these refugees end up encountering the virus, they will be especially hard hit.
What is Life Like in a Refugee Camp?
A Syrian refugee called Nour lives in a Jordanian refugee camp for Syrian refugees. She and her seven family members live in a tent the size of a small living room. This means that they cannot quarantine the elderly members of her family should the virus infect the camp. She must walk a great distance to stand in line for bread. This is some of the only food they get for the day, and thus she would be forced into close contact with many other people. People in the West are told to wash their hands frequently. But Nour and her family can’t even shower on a frequent basis, let alone wash their hands. They have little access to showers for much of the week. Their bathing consists of a bucket of cold water.
NGOs provide food and medical supplies but there often isn’t enough. In the event of an emergency the NGOs would have a difficult time traveling to deliver the aid. And their budgets are already stretched to meet people’s basic needs. Nour and her family are lucky that they have no major health problems. But many have skin, digestive, and respiratory problems which make them fertile targets of the virus.
Refugee Communities are Already Struggling — Coronavirus Would be a Nightmare
Even the refugees that don’t live in camps often have difficulty accessing the health care system of their host countries. They are often politically marginalized since they are new residents and often speak different languages. Analysts report that countries like Jordan can no longer afford to subsidize the cost of immigrants’ health care, thus making the already poor refugees pay more for health care. Therefore, the refugee communities would have a hard time getting even basic care should they get infected.
But the lack of health care is a downstream problem resulting from upstream political decisions. The Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad refused to step down and even gassed his own people, sparking a massive number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. That produced the first migrant crisis. With Russian support, Assad continues to advance in Idlib and the total number of refugees now totals one million.
Russia and Syria Bear Most Responsibility for This Crisis
Turkey has challenged Russian-backed Syrian soldiers who in turn have struck and killed Turkish soldiers and produced a political and military crisis. Even though they are creating the crisis, Turkey is refusing to accept more refugees, and they have encouraged refugees currently living in Turkey to flee to Europe. This means that Greece and potentially other countries like Italy will face another migrant crisis. As recently as January there were reports that Greece was unable or unwilling to provide adequate health care to migrants. That was before the recent wave of immigrants unleashed by the continuing conflict between Turkey and Russian-backed Syria. In short, while many people focus on the plight of refugees, argue over how much health care should be spent on them, or accuse their political opponents of not doing enough for them, the main culprits like the brutal dictators in Russia and Syria continue to wage the wars that produce them.
If the virus spreads to camps it will likely cause as many deaths as the wars that made them flee in the first place. Taking preemptive action is always tough: budgets are stretched thin for a multitude of problems and it is tough to convince voters to spend money on a problem that isn’t massive and immediate. But money spent preparing refugee camps for the coronavirus could save an enormous number of lives.