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Coronavirus

Refugees do not have the luxury of social distancing

The leader of the IRC's COVID-19 response explains how we are fighting the virus and what's at risk for the three countries he's most worried about.

Vice President, Emergencies and Humanitarian Action, International Rescue Committee

I have been working in the global emergency response field for over 20 years. What we are seeing with COVID-19 is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. The last global pandemic was the 1918 Influenza outbreak.

While this new disease threatens to overwhelm many nations’ health systems, I believe we can still take actions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

As the leader of our COVID-19 response globally, I am coordinating International Rescue Committee teams in more than 40 countries, including the United States. Our staff of over 13,000 aid workers are well established around the world and thus are in a unique position to help.

We released the IRC COVID-19 Risk and Response Plan 17 days ago, which I believe sets the humanitarian response standard. We shared it with staff and team leaders around the world, as well as governments and donors. I’m starting to see elements of the plan being implemented in government planning. We’re also sharing it with our sister aid organizations that might not be as fortunate as we are to have health experts available. They are deeply appreciating our outreach.

When this virus hits a war zone, as it did this week in Syria, it reaches into populations already at high risk. Restricting movement in and out of refugee camps will be a nightmare. These camps are dependent on inflow of supplies, services and materials, and refugees routinely come and go for work.

When this virus hits a war zone, as it did this week in Syria, it reaches into populations already at high risk.

But we can promote safety in camps by increasing the supply of fresh water, and the number of hand-washing stations, infection control points and public health communications. This is where the IRC comes in.

Everybody who works for the IRC will be tasked with distributing key messages. Refugees know us and trust us; they will listen to us about the risks they face, how to stay healthy, and what to do if they feel ill. We’ll encourage people who are sick to get treatment and self-isolate.

A young refugee washes his hands at a crowded refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, where the IRC is providing support to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

We can promote safety in crowded refugee camps by increasing the supply of fresh water and the number of hand-washing stations, infection control points and public health communications.

Photo: Maruf Hasan/IRC

Our staff on the ground is acting swiftly. In northern Mexico, we have initiated new approaches to sharing information and raising awareness, and we have installed more hand-washing stations in the shelters for migrants. In Afghanistan, we now have hand-washing facilities outside every one of our offices. In Thailand, we’re taking a leadership role. All 12 aid organizations working in the northern camps have adopted our model. They are following our protocols, which is encouraging. 

In the coming weeks, we will also be scaling up our “SignPost Project,” a game-changing online engagement platform that can be accessed from mobile phones. Within a week of its launch, 80,000 people in Europe logged on and accessed information specifically about COVID-19. We are currently relaunching in Greece and exploring how we can scale up the platform’s impact in other countries.

The SignPost Project includes building on our impressively large Facebook presence with refugees across Europe, which allows us to reach vulnerable populations with posts, videos and podcasts. A large team of moderators are constantly answering questions, engaging communities, and advising people on how to access services and stay safe.

As a humanitarian aid professional, I am especially worried about the virus spreading in Iraq, Greece and Burkina Faso. Here’s why:

Iraq

 Iraq is the perfect storm of a very fragile, unstable country. Struggling to recover from war and a large-scale conflict with the Islamic State, it has a high prevalence of noncommunicable diseases such as hypertension and cancer (many Iraqis smoke), underlying conditions that are accentuating factors for COVID-19. 

Iraq’s geographic proximity to Iran, among the hardest hit countries globally, creates additional public health vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, government access regulations are hampering the IRC team’s ability to reach the vulnerable people we serve at an especially critical time.

Greece

I am concerned about the Greek islands who have been receiving refugees and migrants from Turkey. While the numbers have held steady during the summer, there was an uptick prior to COVID-19. Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are now stuck on these islands, many in detention centers. The island of Lesbos, massively overcrowded, has incredibly weak infrastructure: conditions are ripe for a public-health disaster.

Since 2015, volunteer groups and humanitarian organizations have provided support in Greece—even when the world looked away. They’re gone now, forced to leave by the pandemic. A few aid groups remain, and the IRC’s ability to surge technical support into Greece is currently compromised by international travel bans and the reduction of flights.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso, where people live hand-to-mouth in the best of times, has a high number of COVID-19 cases. The nation’s capital, Ouagadougou, has some health facilities, but rural areas (like many West African countries) don’t have the capabilities to implement triage, test and isolate individuals.

The major increase Burkina Faso has seen in attacks by armed groups over the past year compounds the difficulty of mitigating the spread of a disease in an active conflict area, as we’ve seen with Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There is something else I want to tell you about the situation. Because of the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19, IRC workers and volunteers cannot travel—as I mentioned above in my comments about Greece—so our 13,000-plus workforce of in-country staff will be the front line of our response. These brave people are committed to engaging the communities we serve. In the midst of fighting COVID-19, they are keeping our lifesaving programs afloat.

The truth is, COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the communities where we work.

The truth is, COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the communities where we work. Our ability to sustain our programs and to scale up new responses in these regions will save lives. Right now, while we have the chance, we must act.

I am proud to work for an organization that for decades has gone to extraordinary lengths to reach displaced people. In this time of global crisis, we are recommitting to this tradition. Your support will help us minimize the spread of this virus, and it will allow us to keep sending lifesaving aid to displaced families worldwide.