By Millicent Zighe
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, right activists fear Governments are not doing enough to protect refugees and the displaced.
So far over 199 countries have confirmed cases of the virus including those hosting the largest refugee populations. The number of infected people stands at a staggering 824,559 with more than 45,000 reported dead since the diseases was detected in December at Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China.
The results would be catastrophic if the virus finds its way to camps where health and sanitary conditions are poor. In many instances’ refugees have to walk miles without any protective gear to access food and water points. Worse still, practicing social distancing is nearly impossible given the crowded situation.
“They (refugees) are literally living surrounded by walls and barbed wire, in tents that are only inches apart. It’s a pretty scary picture to think about – what a disease like this could do to an already very fragile healthcare system.” said Crystal Ashley Wells, regional spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during an interview with Aljazeera.
Bangladesh is currently hosting the largest refugee population in the world. With 48 confirmed cases of the virus and five deaths, many are worried that the diseases may spread to 1 million Rohingya refugees- who fled ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar. Already the living conditions in camps are said to be inhumane with overflowing latrines and contaminated water.
“It is very difficult to protect ourselves, it’s too crowded, people can’t breathe well.” Mohammed Arafat, a refugee in Bangladesh told Reuters. “We are living in tiny, crowded shelters, we are sharing toilets,” he said.
In Sudan where an estimated 3.2 million are displaced, only a third of health facilities are well equipped to offer quality medical services. Majority of hospitals are understaffed to deal with large scale outbreaks.
“We have surgical wards right now that are full of patients recovering from gunshot wounds. Then you have this healthcare system that has suffered from decades of under-investment and then conflict that has basically left people with little healthcare at best.” said Ashley Wells.
In Congo, the virus is a new threat to 5 million displaced people. So far 58 cases have been reported in the capital Kinshasa resulting in a shutdown. In refugee camps, Government has taken some safety measures by installing handwashing points at the entrance. In Mulongwe camp, health workers screen temperatures regularly to detect potential suspects
“Cinemas, churches, markets, schools and other public places have been temporarily closed. We recommend washing your hands every time you leave the house, gatherings of more than 20 people in the camp are prohibited,” Ntamubano Dominique, representative of refugees in the Mulongwe camp told SoS Media Burundi.
Uganda has also imposed tough regulations to curb the virus which has since affected 18 people. Mahama and Nakivale camps are currently closed, refugees are allowed to leave only during emergency. The country has also suspended refugee arrivals for the next 30 days as part of efforts to contain the virus.
Kenya, which is a home to the tenth largest refugee population globally has reported relatively low cases of the virus, none in camps. Dadaab and Kakuma refugee complexes are currently hosting 218,000 and 190,000 shelter seekers respectively. Like neighboring Sudan, Refugee International has warned the health facilities in the camps are not equipped to handle the virus. The country has since suspended the voluntary repatriation programme.
UNHCR has called for $255 million from member states to deal with the pandemic. Part of the wider UN plan seeks to raise $2.01 billion. Some measures taken by the agency to avoid spread of the virus include reinforcing the health and WASH systems and services by distributing soaps and increasing access to water. Additionally, UNHCR seeks to enhance interventions to ensure the rights of forcibly displaced people are respected.