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A woman cleans her hands at the Alexandria refugee camp in northern Greece, July 14, 2016.
Health

Coronavirus: Who will be hit hardest by the outbreak?

Last updated 
Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill for the International Rescue Committee

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to spread globally and has reached countries with weak health systems that are less prepared to combat the disease. The International Rescue Committee is ramping up our response to the outbreak with a focus on crisis zones with especially weak health systems.

 

The more than 70 million refugees, displaced families, and those living in crisis will be hit hardest by this disease.

Displaced and vulnerable families are often confined to overcrowded refugee camps or urban areas where a disease like this can spread rapidly. The advice given to protect ourselves from the virus—wash your hands with soap and clean water, visit a health clinic if symptomatic, and self-isolate or use social distancing—is not always possible for these families to follow.

It’s likely the coronavirus will spread rapidly through these areas, overwhelming the minimal health care infrastructures that exist. In war-torn countries like Yemen and Syria, numerous hospitals and health facilities have been forced to close, putting thousands of civilians at increased risk.

Moreover, refugees and recently displaced people tend to have a higher rate of underlying health issues due to the impacts of war, disease, and famine or food insecurity, making them more susceptible to fall ill or die from the disease.

“We know the coronavirus doesn’t respect borders and that it hits the vulnerable hardest, those with weak health systems,” says International Rescue Committee president and CEO David Miliband. “So people living in conflict-affected countries are at considerably greater risk.”

We know Coronavirus doesn’t respect borders and that it hits the vulnerable hardest, those with weak health systems.

This new virus causes flu-like illness and can spread from person to person. It was first discovered in December 2019 in a seafood market in Wuhan, China. COVID-19 is in the same virus family as SARS and MERS. Past MERS and SARS outbreaks have been complex, requiring countries to launch comprehensive public health responses. But countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where conflict or crisis have destroyed clinics and hospitals and weakened health systems, have little chance to effectively to combat the disease without support.

What needs to be done to stop the coronavirus?

Countries in crisis, like those where the IRC works, need international assistance to strengthen their capacity to rapidly detect the coronavirus, respond, and prevent further transmission of the disease. This includes helping countries invest in strong surveillance to detect the disease; efficient infection prevention and control at health clinics; an increase in protective gear, medical supplies and drugs; training of health workers to be able to identify, isolate and treat the symptoms of the disease; and outreach to communities so that people have the knowledge and resources to protect themselves and prevent the transmission of the virus.

As governments put in place restrictions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, they must also consider how to ensure that lifesaving, humanitarian aid can continue to reach those in need safely.

What is the IRC doing to combat the coronavirus?

The physical health and safety of our staff, our clients and our communities is the IRC’s top priority globally. We are providing assistance to people living in crisis in coronavirus-affected countries, and in some instances, cases are already within our areas of operation. We are working to train staff worldwide on the virus so that they can be cognizant of their own health and protect themselves. We are also putting a plan in place to ensure that, even if/when the virus spreads more widely in the areas we operate in, our ongoing lifesaving work can continue safely, as much as possible.

The IRC is also supporting local efforts to contain the virus and further reduce the impact of the outbreak within these communities. We are working to ensure people are aware of how to protect themselves from the disease and know where to seek support if they become ill.

  • In Italy, the IRC is using our Refugee.Info platform to share COVID-19 information with refugees and vulnerable populations and ensure they know how to protect themselves, the signs and symptoms of the disease and where to seek support if they fall ill.
  • In Pakistan, the IRC worked with other agencies to develop key information about COVID-19 for the National Disaster Management Authority as part of their mass media awareness campaigns to inform and protect Pakistanis.
  • In Afghanistan, the IRC is increasing the number of hand-washing stations around our programming sites and distributing key information about the disease to the communities we serve.
  • In Thailand, the IRC has set up triage, screening and isolation units at health facilities within refugee camps. We are also working with the ministry of health to secure protective gear and supplies for frontline health workers within the refugee camps.

In the United States, IRC offices are following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local guidance by informing staff and clients on best practices in personal hygiene and health, practicing social distancing, and canceling all non-essential travel, and switching to remote programming to the extent possible.

Examples of our response:

  • In Seattle, creating "health and hygiene kits" for families at higher risk, as well as stocking up emergency food supplies. We are also offering home study packets for students in our youth programs and providing remote mentoring for youth and adults.
  • In the Bay Area office in California, prepped emergency kits for newly arrived refugee families affected by self-isolation and quarantine measures, and developing ways to offer remote education to families and groups using video tools and webinars.
  • In Boise, Idaho, we've translated the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance into five languages and shared it with partners and the community. IRC teams are running information sessions to demonstrate best practices in hygiene, communicating symptoms, when to go to report to medical personnel, and when to self-isolate.

Learn more about our health work around the world.

What can you do to support our work?

The IRC responds to the world’s worst crises, helping people whose lives have been upended by war, conflict and natural disasters to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. As the coronavirus continues to spread globally, vulnerable populations and those living in crisis will be hit hardest by outbreaks of disease.

We cannot let the needs of refugees and displaced families be neglected.  We urgently need funding and support for our scaled-up response: Help us reach families in coronavirus-affected areas and more than 40 countries worldwide.

Donate now.