The Daily media updates on the number of infections and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic tend to focus on affluent countries. Even when studies conclude that the less wealthy are more at risk, because they live in cramped conditions and lack access to good nutrition and health care, these studies apply mostly to the US or Europe. And there is indeed a problem there; many people have lost their jobs, 17 million in the US alone, as economies contract because of the pandemic. Food banks are overwhelmed, with queues longer than could have been imagined only a few weeks ago.
This holds true for countries with relatively well functioning healthcare systems. New hospitals for COVID-19 patients have been made operational at record speed from London to New York, and from Wuhan to Paris. Even in these well-off countries, healthcare professionals are running out of protective equipment and hospitals do not have sufficient access to intensive care beds or ventilators; countries are literally “hijacking” exports of medical equipment intended for their neighbors and allies.
This is the situation in affluent economies. It becomes a lot more dire when we look at low-income countries with healthcare systems that are inadequate at the best of times. As the virus spreads, countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America will be hard hit. Again, the hardest hit will be the poor who live in slums. Living quarters are cramped and sanitary appalling. For them it must sound like the height of cynicism when doctors tell them to wash their hands frequently and use plenty of soap. How can they, when there is neither clean water nor soap?
As though this were not depressing enough, think of the plight of refugees. A conservative estimate is that in the Middle East alone 20 million displaced people are strewn across a plethora of failing or war-torn states with already woefully inadequate healthcare systems. Six million Syrians are refugees outside the country. They are joined by many internally displaced, a million in ravaged Idlib province alone. The UN estimates that 2 million Iraqis are still displaced since the American-led invasion. There are 3 million Afghan refugees and more than 4 million internally displaced people in Yemen, not to speak of the conflict in Libya and other places, all of which drove people from their homes.
Most of these displaced people live in refugee camps with a high population density, little or no access to sanitation and inadequate food supplies — not to speak of the lack of personal protection equipment for the aid workers looking after the camps. This is a breeding ground, if ever there was one, for a fast spreading virus.
The COVID-19 crisis becomes a lot more dire when we look at low-income countries with healthcare systems that are inadequate at the best of times. As the virus spreads, countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America will be hard hit.
There have been few reported cases of COVID-19 in these camps. The first was reported in Greece at the beginning of this month and none have been reported so far among Syrian refugees in the Levant. This is not to say that there are no cases, they just have not been reported. How could they, when there is little or no access to test kits?
To make matters worse, these failing states and the refugee camps in them are kept afloat by submerged trade networks, which are bound to spread the virus.
As advanced countries concentrate on their own virus-related economic problems, aid money is bound to become scarcer. The UN’s World Food Programme is a good example. It is chronically underfunded, yet keeps many people nourished in conflict zones such as Yemen. It will cut its aid to Yemen by 40 percent in the months to come, for various reasons.
The scenarios for how the virus will spread across the least fortunate people on the planet are chilling. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pleaded with countries at war to suspend hostilities, while the coronavirus crisis was ongoing. He was heard by some. Saudi Arabia, for example, is willing to extend its two-weeks cease-fire in Yemen. In Libya, some heed Guterres’s call, but many, including eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, do not. There is already some sort of a coronavirus blame game going on in Libya.
What many of the affluent countries do not understand is that what happens in the refugee camps on their peripheries will in due course affect them too. When the travel restrictions are eased as the crisis abates in Europe and the US, these refugees will do whatever it takes to cross borders in the quest for a livelihood. They will then bring the virus back to those countries and the lockdowns will start all over again. The pandemic strategy of these OECD nations must therefore take into consideration what happens in the refugee camps. Karl Blanchet, a public health professor and director of the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action, put it well when he said: “Either we include everyone in this strategy, or we strategically fail. Not including these populations is a recipe for failure for our whole society.”
The problem of how COVID-19 will spread in refugee camps is not just woefully underreported, it matters to the affluent of the world just as much as it does to the most deprived. As humanity we need to take care of the weak, because it is the right thing to do — but also out of self-interest.