Why the COVID-19 pandemic will be catastrophic for refugees

Mar 27, 2020
As Canadians continue to come to grips with how the COVID-19 pandemic could forever change life as we know it, global aid groups are growing increasingly concerned that the novel coronavirus could decimate some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Two key tactics are strongly encouraged by public health officials to help limit the spread of COVID-19: wash your hands – thoroughly and often – and implement social distancing measures. Unfortunately, these are luxuries that people living in fragile contexts simply cannot afford.

Right now, there are an estimated 70 million people suffering from forcible displacement globally. Nearly 26 million of these are refugees on the move. About half of those are children, and approximately 173,000 are thought to be unaccompanied or separated from their families.

As the coronavirus rages from continent to continent, these vulnerable populations face the greatest risk. An uncontrolled outbreak within refugee settlements would amount to an unprecedented disaster on top of what is already the largest humanitarian crisis of our time.

Lack of clean water and overcrowding
In many developing countries, parents struggle daily to find clean water for their children to wash their hands or drink. In refugee settlements around the world, water shortages routinely force people to choose between cooking and bathing.

A woman wearing a colourful headscarf helps a little boy wash his hands at a public tap installed by World Vision.Shahanara, a mother of three, collects potable water and washes her children’s hands at a water point installed by World Vision inside a refugee camp in Rohingya. Photo: Himaloy Joseph Mree

This lack of access to clean water makes effective handwashing difficult. Frequent handwashing is even more unlikely. With waterborne diseases already responsible for killing more people per year than all forms of violence combined, these communities face an increased challenge in protecting themselves from the spread of coronavirus.

In parts of Asia and Africa, it’s not uncommon for a large, extended family to live in a single home. This kind of living arrangement makes isolating for illness impractical. And for those living in slums or abject poverty, the advice to stay home or keep a social distance is almost a cruel joke.

“Social distancing is a privilege,” says Sahar Tawfeeq, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Iraq. “There is a hashtag trending: #StayHome. They can’t do that. They don’t have a home to stay in.”

Temporary shelters are clustered close together on a hillside in Syria.
Conditions are deteriorating in overcrowded camps in Idlib, northwest Syria, as conflict and violence continue to drive thousands of people from their homes. Photo: World Vision

Hundreds of thousands of refugees live in overcrowded camps across Africa and the Middle East, often with multiple families sharing the same tent. The conditions here have been ripe for all kinds of diseases to be passed easily between people, especially since many have endured years of malnutrition  and limited health care. They now face an even steeper uphill battle with COVID-19 while struggling with compromised immune systems, underlying health conditions like malaria and tuberculosis, and injuries sustained from fleeing violence.

Broken healthcare systems
In some of the world’s most fragile contexts, people lack access to the most basic services – education, a stable economy and reliable access to healthcare. We’ve seen how this pandemic has caused some of the world’s best healthcare systems to buckle under massive strain. What happens in countries where there is little to no healthcare to speak of?

Under the weakened political structure of Venezuela, the country has faced recession and food shortages even before the pandemic hit. A recent survey of health facilities revealed they lacked the most basic medicines and supplies. Seventy-nine percent of them had no running water.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people have little or no access to healthcare due to a total collapse of the country’s economic and political infrastructure. While the country is no longer at war, the DRC is still recovering from the world’s second deadliest Ebola outbreak in 2019.

A healthcare worker shares information about Ebola prevention inside a medical tent.A healthcare worker in South Sudan explains the signs and symptoms caused by Ebola. Photo: Scovia Faida Charles

In Syria, which continues to be embroiled in a brutal civil war, the population is especially vulnerable from the spread of COVID-19 in neighbouring countries. The ongoing conflict has resulted in thousands of people being constantly on the move, making contact tracing and providing assistance to those who need it nearly impossible.

In the face of global shortages of medical supplies such as disinfectant, masks, personal protective equipment and ventilators, these populations are at risk of being overlooked. While wealthy countries typically have 2-12 hospital beds per 1,000 population, in the poorest countries it is as few as one bed per 10,000. Testing for COVID-19 is scarce in these places, if it’s happening at all.

A truly global pandemic
It seems only a matter of time before the coronavirus hits refugees and asylum seekers, who are now being turned away from Canada and the US  as countries continue to limit the movement of people across their borders. As challenging as we may find the restrictions in our context, the public health recommendations to go home, rest in your house and self-isolate simply cannot be adopted by the most vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 also presents new challenges for the way humanitarians typically respond to an emergency. Government policies prohibiting public gatherings pose complications for distribution of food assistance and other life-saving supplies. Travel restrictions limit the ability to send in additional support capacity. But the need to find alternatives to ensure continuity of existing emergency response and supply chains has never been more urgent.

World Vision staffers wearing masks distribute food and hygiene assistance packages to children in Mongolia.World Vision staff distributing food and hygiene supplies to vulnerable children and families in Mongolia. Photo: Delgermaa Surenjav

“We will continue to respond in every country where we work,” says World Vision International’s Global Director of Humanitarian Operations, Isabel Gomes. “With extensive experience in responding to disease outbreaks, including polio, Zika and Ebola, we are focusing on preventing transmission, supporting health responses and caring for children made vulnerable by this crisis.”

Poverty deprives people of food and nutrition, their social standing and a voice in the decision-making process. But a pandemic reminds us that we are all part of the same global community – we all face the same challenges and we all need the same access to support during challenging times.

“Experience with the Ebola virus and other outbreaks has shown that governments need to include refugees and displaced persons in their plans to counter epidemics and to ensure that the refugees have the same access to medical treatment,” says Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UNHCR. "If we keep them safe, it's keeping all of us safe.”

Learn more about what World Vision is doing, at home and abroad, to help children and families facing the greatest risk from the coronavirus pandemic.