While official responses to the novel COVID-19 have focused on domestic impacts of the virus, we cannot overlook its impact on humanitarian crises and displaced populations. With over 126 million people in need of humanitarian assistance today and 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, a global approach is needed to avoid more loss of life.
The confirmed number of COVID-19 cases in refugee camps is small, which is likely due to a lack of testing. Cases have been reported in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Sudan, raising concerns about the spread of the disease. If the virus reached Syria and Yemen, the spread would be “impossible to manage,” writes Dr. Esperanza Martinez, head of health for the International Committee of the Red Cross. The spread of the virus to places like the Gaza Strip, which has been under an air, land, and sea blockade since 2007, would also be seriously damaging. Besides having one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, more than 70 per cent of Gaza’s residents are refugees, living in crowded camps.
Armed conflict and military strikes result in profound acute- and long-term effects to health infrastructure. Hospitals are destroyed or damaged, medical personnel are either killed or forced to flee, and the interruption of supply chains, electricity and water drastically impacts the capacity of health systems to deliver routine care. In Syria, for example, medical facilities and staff are regularly targeted, with around 60 per cent of hospitals destroyed or seriously damaged since the start of the conflict.
People who are forced to flee their homes during armed conflict can end up living in overcrowded and unsanitary environments with poor infrastructure, creating conditions conducive to the spread of disease. Official response plans in places like the United States, South Korea, and China require social distancing, which is impossible in many displacement camps. Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned of “carnage” in camps housing millions of refugees.
How to mitigate the risk of the virus in refugee camps and humanitarian crises? I argue that a two-pronged approach is required.
First, national and international funding must be mobilized to fight COVID-19 and should include resources for refugees and forcibly displaced communities. In terms of funding, priority should be given to the most urgent cases of distress, in line with the humanitarian principle of impartiality. The challenge, however, is that donor countries might restrict funding toward humanitarian crises as they turn toward domestic spending, as the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains. Compounding this challenge is the fact that demand for aid has long outpaced resources available.
Second, the United Nations, regional agencies, and other NGOs must build trust with refugee communities to manage the crisis. According to Muhammad H. Zaman of Boston University, trust plays a critical role in how vulnerable groups seek health care. Some factors that influence trust in the healthcare system include prior experiences with treatment and access to information.
Along with trust, political leaders must refrain from stigmatizing refugees and displaced persons over the spread of the virus. Claiming that COVID-19 came from refugees can further marginalize them, resulting in worsening conditions in the camps and higher susceptibility to the virus. Unfortunately, however, leaders across Europe are using the crisis to close borders and scapegoat refugees. Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini was among the first to target migrants in relation to COVID-19: Salvaini called on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign after the government allowed a boat with nearly 300 migrants to dock in Sicily. According to Salvini, Conte failed to “defend Italy.” In the United States, President Donald Trump has said he will close the southern border to slow the spread of the virus. Responses that stigmatize whole populations are not only wrong, but will fail to stop the spread of disease.
There is an opportunity and a need to reflect on humanitarian work overseas as countries face the challenge of COVID-19 domestically. Taking care of the most vulnerable and at-risk groups, including displaced persons, will help stop the spread of the virus while also paving the way for a humanitarian system fit for contemporary challenges.