As the United States and other high-income countries grapple with how to stamp out coronavirus at home, refugees and the broad network of stakeholders that support them are bracing for catastrophe. At a camp in northwestern Syria, where more than 1 million people have been displaced, refugees face immense challenges that prevent them from following even the most basic prevention edicts. Cramped living conditions, weak or nonexistent healthcare systems, and a lack of access to clean water make refugee communities some of the most vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Fadi Mesaher, the Idlib Director for the Maram Foundation, put it even more bluntly: “You want us to wash our hands? Some people can’t wash their kids for a week. They are living outdoors.” The world’s largest refugee camps like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and Zaatari in Jordan have yet to report large-scale presence of the virus – likely due to a lack of testing – but Boston University professor Muhammad Zaman warns, “If COVID-19 hasn’t already spread to refugees, it’s only a matter of time.” Humanitarian organizations are already sounding the alarm at the lack of preparedness in many refugee communities, with Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations urging the evacuation of thousands of refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos because an outbreak would be “impossible to contain.”
The spread of COVID-19 is already hindering the aid community’s ability to address the needs of refugees. Last week, the United Nations announced it was suspending all travel for refugee resettlement, leaving thousands with no alternative to overcrowded camps. NGO’s are also beginning to face new impediments to their critical work around the world. Refugees International has suspended all travel to refugee camps to avoid any risk of spreading the virus. In addition, attention and resources in donor capitals are still largely consumed with the domestic impact of the virus, putting added pressure on NGOs. While organizations like International Rescue Committee (IRC) are continuing to carry out lifesaving programs in refugee communities, this strain on resources has prompted them to appeal for an additional $30 million to meet the staggering needs for preparedness and prevention.
As the health crisis wears on, the humanitarian community will need to ensure that the developing world remains a priority as governments prioritize the health and safety of their own populations. It’s also critical that implementers balance the response to COVID-19 with ongoing projects in education, food access, and conflict prevention— all critical to the well-being of vulnerable populations around the world.
Unfortunately, this challenge is likely to be a protracted one. Governments and NGOs will be hard-pressed to sustain a global health response that limits the spread of the disease, and the dearth of resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) currently facing the United States and Europe will be even worse in the developing world. As Jeremy Konyndyk, a leader in the Obama Administration’s response to Ebola in West Africa recently said, “When the first 100 million doses of vaccines come out, it’s going to be a big fight over who gets those, and it’s going to be very important that [they] not just go to those who can afford them.”