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Who Will Help the Thousands of Arab Refugee Coronavirus Victims?!

posted on: Mar 25, 2020

Refugee camp in Syria on Jordanian border–crowding makes it ripe for a pandemic photo Fox News 

By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer

The West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, and Libya, among others—all counties having experienced foreign wars and as a result, all with crowded refugee camps—may get ravaged by the Coronavirus. Will those most responsible for the occurrence of these refugee settlements actually help the refugees in this time of crisis, for example, Israel with the West Bank and Gaza; the U.S. with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen;  Turkey and Egypt with Libya, and Saudi Arabia with Yemen?

Virus Pandemic threatens Arab Middle East Refugee Camps

How is it possible for Arab refugees around the Middle East displaced by useless wars to practice the recommendations to avoid the Coronavirus? More specifically, what are their prospects of surviving the ravages of the Coronavirus pandemic? Muhammad Zaman, a professor of biomedical engineering and international health at Boston University, is a good source of understanding the Arab point of view on the millions of refugees who are at risk to the Coronavirus. The following list of questions and answers is inferred from Zaman’s compassionate observations.

1. How are the refugees supposed to practice social distancing when they are jammed into over-crowded settlements?

 The high-density populations and close-knit communities comprising the refugee settlements are a perfect breeding ground for the rapid spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. Especially as increasing numbers of refugees seeking work in nearby urban areas move back and forth between camp and city, the conditions are ripe for a rapid spread of the disease.

2. How can the refugees follow frequent, prescribed hand-washing practices when they don’t even have access to clean water?

Hand-washing is perhaps the refugees’ last line of defense given the high presence of underlying health issues stemming from sanitation conditions, poor nutrition, and the lack of vaccination. These make refugees even more vulnerable to the virus. Secondary infections, including those from drug-resistant pathogens, are also common in these environments. An outbreak would also increase the likelihood of infection among staff at clinics, schools and humanitarian agencies who work in refugee settlements. The workers and staff could, in turn, infect others in their own communities.

Syrian refugees wait in long lines for water photo The Times

3. What are the prospects of a massive spread of the virus in refugee camps?

Arab refugees living in these crowded settlements are not there voluntarily; rather, they are forced there usually because of armed conflict or reasons for environmental degradation. They flee to these artificial communities where there are few doctors or other health specialists, much less access to antibiotics. The refugees end up contracting infections and superbugs, which thrive in squalid conditions. It is clear that COVID-19 will reach the refugee communities and hit them hard, but the disease may be slow in showing up immediately due to the absence of testing.

4. How can the refugees cope with the anxiety induced by the Pandemic in the face of limited health resources?

Professor Zaman requested a friend of his who helps provide primary care to refugees at the Syrian-Lebanese border to inquire about pandemic-related anxiety in the camp. His friend replied with his own question, “What happens if your home is in a confined refugee settlement?” He went on to describe the impact of armed conflict on health systems and infrastructure. “Hospitals are destroyed, medical personnel is either killed or forced to flee, supply chains for medical equipment and medicines are disrupted. This is in addition to increased injuries and trauma, as well as greater exposure to infectious agents and unhygienic environments.”

5. Who will help the Arab refugees through this pestilence?

While the pandemic has directed some attention to low and middle-income countries, the needs of Arab refugees have been left out of the equation. They are ignored and left to fight their own battles. Many millions of refugees are on the brink of being smacked by the virus outbreak and it is unclear if they have the medical information to deal with it. The United Nations indicates it requires $2 billion in aid to fight the pandemic, especially for humanitarian purposes in fighting the virus among refugees. What percentage of this would be aimed at Arab refugees is unclear. Such funding, if acquired, would be administered by the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

Palestinian refugees from Syria in Lebanon photo Anera

Hoping for the Best

 It’s best to end with a Middle Eastern/Arab perspective on the future for the refugee camps in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak. Professor Zaman suggests the following on the subject of how the Arab refugees might end up in the face of the coronavirus:

 “For residents and health officials alike, the prospect of a Covid-19 outbreak within one of the dozens of refugee camps, migrant centers, and displacement sites spread across the Middle East is a nightmare within a nightmare. Agencies are bracing for the rapid spread of the disease through tightly packed camps where feeble health systems, poor sanitation, warfare, and political restraints could make it nearly impossible to contain.”

The potential harm of the pandemic to millions of refugees in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank, Jordan Yemen, Libya, and Egypt is catastrophic. The number of refugees who could be affected may mount to 30 million. In the absence of state support of the refugees in many of these countries, WHO has an outlandish burden on its shoulders to make up the deficit of assistance.

U.S. funds to the World Health Organization to assist Palestinian refugees have been cut by the present Administration

Were the major world powers not so wrapped up in their own unprepared responses to the Covid-19 illness, they would perhaps have been able to help stem the damage that will, unfortunately, slam Arab refugees all over the Middle East.



“Opinion: Refugees are especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Don’t ignore their needs,” Goats and Soda, Muhammed Zaman, 3-11-2020

“As epidemic menaces refugee camps, the Middle East’s most vulnerable face a deepening nightmare” Washington Post, 3-21-2020



John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.



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