Monday, July 13, 2020
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Refugee Camps and COVID-19

Not many of us have expected to be in a pandemic caused by COVID-19. Our lives have been put on pause. However, many of us are fortunate enough to continue to further our education from home using different resources. As a result, we may forget to think of refugees in camps, students who don’t have internet access, and students living in war-torn countries where working and going to school from home is not even an option. 

Refugee camps already lack medical supplies and the ability to give refugees the medical attention they need and deserve. However, with the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation has only gotten worse. Countries are struggling to control the virus within their borders.Therefore, not many doctors are being sent to refugee camps to protect the vulnerable. These refugee camps don’t have many sanitary products like soap and sanitizer — many of them may not have toilets or running water. Due to being in an environment that’s poorly sanitized, refugees are extremely vulnerable to respiratory diseases like coronavirus, but are unfortunately considered to be a last priority when providing services. 

Refugees share almost everything that is seen as essential, making it almost impossible to practice social distancing. Taking this into consideration, we can see that they’re at high risk because it takes one person in a refugee camp to test positive for the virus to easily spread across the camp. The mortality rates could be higher due to the lack of medical attention and medication. Let’s also not forget that if there isn’t enough testing in the U.S., then certainly states with refugee camps within their borders are likely not doing enough testing either. 

There have been two COVID-19 outbreaks reported in refugee camps. The first outbreak was located in Greece where 600,000 refugees are seeking safety in camps. From what has been reported, 20 refugees have tested positive for COVID-19. However, it is important to consider that the likelihood of the virus spreading is extremely high in refugee camps. Refugees are extremely vulnerable, with some reporting only one water tap for every 1,300, with no soap available.

The second reported outbreak took place in Germany, where nearly half of the roughly 600 people at a refugee camp in southern Germany tested positive for COVID-19. This entire camp is under lockdown. Within this camp, families from Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are sharing bathrooms, showers, toilets and rooms. There is a single WiFi spot in the camp that allows refugees to stay connected with their families, which has been shut down to adhere to social distancing rules. These are the cases that have been reported from refugee camps in European countries. We have little information from camps elsewhere because there is limited healthcare infrastructure and means of testing. 

What about the situation in countries of conflict? Healthcare facilities have been sites of attack in these countries. They were already lacking medical supplies, such as masks, gloves, medicine and even more basic needs like clean running water. Due to all these factors, life expectancy in Syria has decreased by 20 years. Since the war began, Syria has already faced two polio outbreaks due to limited infrastructure and services in administering vaccines. For a place like war-torn Syria, to experience coronavirus in these conditions is devastating, and, unfortunately, Syria reported its first positive COVID-19 case on March 23. 

This pandemic has affected 770 million learners, who have all been affected by the closure of schools and universities. Many schools have adapted to an online learning system in order for students to continue their classes from home. However, we must think about learners living in countries that can’t offer such privileges. According to the International Telecommunication Union, internet users in Arab states comprised 51.6% of the population in 2019, which means almost half of the Arab world does not have access to the internet. This is not even taking into account having access to high speed internet, which is needed for applications like Zoom. 

Let’s take Syria for example, which hasn’t had proper internet services since the war began nine years ago. Students in Syria are in quarantine and out of school to stay safe while adhering to social distancing guidelines. However, they haven’t been able to continue their education from home due to their lack of internet access and electronic devices. 

So what can we do to help? 

As college students, we might seem helpless in the face of crippling healthcare systems and governments, but we do have the potential to make a difference. Peaceful Passions, a student organization at UCI, strives to raise awareness and create opportunities for refugees. The students running this organization focus on bringing more attention to the refugee crisis because they understand that meaningful action comes after having knowledge and awareness. They are also raising funds for the Refugee Students Scholarship Program to empower displaced students and help them gain the skills necessary to make a difference in their communities and home countries. Peaceful Passions is planning to pilot a program during quarantine to connect refugee families with UCI students who can tutor these families’ children. 

Another way to make a difference is by supporting organizations like the International Rescue Committee, or IRC. This organization is supporting refugees locally by connecting with families to resources like food banks and free internet, creating an employment task force, offering support loans, helping empower youth and ensuring that asylum seekers have access to housing. The IRC is also providing aid and services globally and has begun an emergency appeal to collect funds. 

It is easy to become enthralled with how the virus is progressing in the U.S., but we need to acknowledge the privilege that we have and understand how this pandemic is affecting other parts of the world that may not be as fortunate. It’s important for all of us to stay informed about what’s happening in refugee camps and to become involved as much as possible.

 Kholood Alshami is a Contributing Writer. She can be reached at kalshami@uci.edu