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As Coronavirus spreads around the world, health experts and humanitarian groups warn that the disease could be especially devastating for individuals living in overcrowded refugee camps. While there are few confirmed cases of COVID-19 in refugee camps, testing is severely limited, and several doctors told the New York Times that they have treated patients with Coronavirus symptoms in refugee camps who they were unable to test for the virus. Individuals living in refugee camps are especially vulnerable to Coronavirus because these camps are usually overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking in doctors and medical supplies. To prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee camps, governments must work to improve sanitation and healthcare and build additional facilities to reduce overcrowding in these camps.
One reason that a Coronavirus outbreak in refugee camps would be so dangerous is that refugee camps are notoriously overcrowded. Nearly 40,000 people currently live in refugee camps on the Aegean islands off the coast of Greece that were only intended to support 6,000 people. In the Kutupalong-Balukhali Expansion Site in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, over 600,000 Rohingya refugees live in dangerously crowded conditions. A British Medical Journal article from March reported that many of the people in these crowded camps live in tents and carton boxes with no bathroom or kitchen, making it impossible to self-isolate. Under these conditions, an outbreak of Coronavirus would spread rapidly to almost everyone in the camp.
To make matters worse, individuals in refugee camps often live in unsanitary conditions with limited access to even the most basic cleaning supplies. A New York Times report found that many people in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Greece, and Syria lacked access to water and soap, making it impossible for them to wash their hands regularly. When running water is available, individuals often have to stand in line for hours to access it. There are also few masks or gloves for residents to wear, in order to slow the spread of the disease. In Bangladesh, authorities are worried that the rainy season will cause sewage to overflow in refugee camps, facilitating the spread of Coronavirus and other diseases.
There is also limited access to high-quality healthcare in refugee camps. In Syrian refugee camps, doctors have reported seeing patients with Coronavirus symptoms who they were unable to test due to a lack of beds and protective gear. One refugee camp in Kenya had only eight doctors for 200,000 residents. Combined with the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in refugee camps, the lack of medical care could facilitate a rapid and deadly spread of COVID-19.
Several governments and NGOs have taken steps to reduce the risk of a Coronavirus outbreak in refugee camps. In Bangladesh, the number of staff and aid workers entering refugee camps has been severely limited with only religious leaders, teachers, doctors, and other essential employees permitted to enter. Bangladesh also restricted access to cellphone service at the camp, boosting the spread of misinformation and reducing the communication between refugees and aid workers.
Al Jazeera reported that Kenya has also banned movement in and out of refugee camps. The Greek government restricted the movement of refugees and enforced a lockdown between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.. Many human rights groups are skeptical about these approaches to slowing the virus that involve mandatory lockdown because they do not address the fact that people within the camp could already have been exposed to the virus.
In early April, the European Union gave hundreds of millions of dollars to the Greek government to use to prevent the spread of Coronavirus within refugee camps. Rather than using this money to lock down refugee camps when the people inside do not have access to basic sanitation and medical care, the governments of countries like Greece should provide hygiene products and running water and ensure frequent sanitation of common areas like bathrooms. Individuals living in overcrowded refugee camps should also be transported to other facilities like hotels and apartments to allow for social distancing. These concerns about the spread of Coronavirus highlight the existing problems with overcrowding and sanitation within refugee camps that must be addressed to prevent a devastating COVID-19 outbreak.