Text and illustration by Khaoula Houssini

The latest surge of coronavirus cases outside of China has raised considerable concerns on how the outbreak of COVID-19 is becoming a challenge for our world and the future of our societies. 

Globally, governments are undertaking unprecedented measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to protect their citizens by limiting their movements, banning public gatherings, closing public spaces and businesses, and moving the educational system to online platforms. On a daily basis, we hear how these new regulations are shaping our communities and how they are drastically affecting our daily-life routines, resulting in compulsory home quarantine, travel restrictions, online working, and profound uncertainty about the coming months. 

Authorities, doctors, and health workers are calling for our cooperation in containing the spread of the coronavirus by staying at home, social distancing, washing our hands with soap, and using sanitizers and masks to protect ourselves. Basic protective measures advised by World Health Organization include staying away from people who may be infected, vigilant personal hygiene, and seeking medical attention if symptoms occur. However, not all people live in the conditions that allow implying these measures against the spread of COVID-19.

In a world characterized by wars, conflicts, economic recessions, and social inequalities, little attention is given to people who are disproportionally affected and how they are more exposed to the coronavirus. The general public is well aware of the economic challenges that COVID-19 poses and how it changes our societies, but refugees, migrant workers, and homeless people are largely ignored and excluded from the public discourse. 

Globally there are 25,9 million refugees who fled their homes because of war, half of them are under 18. 84 percent of all of the world’s refugees are hosted by low or middle-income nations that struggle with weaker health, water, and sanitation systems. 

Among the areas severely hit by the COVID-19 there are at least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people living between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, nearly one million refugees in Iran, and an estimated 1.5 to two million undocumented refugees in Afghanistan. Behind these numbers lie hopes, dreams, daily struggles for a better life and future.

It is important to keep in mind that these refugees are fleeing from wars and conflicts, which, of course, have a negative impact on the health-care system. Hospitals are often targeted in wars and their destruction results in the disruption of supply chains for medical equipment and medicines. In addition to a weak healthcare system, there is often a lack of medical personnel and sanitation. Fleeing is often the only way to survive.

When refugees arrive in refugee camps, however, they still face serious problems with hygiene and sanitation. While the coronavirus affects everyone, measures to contain the spread of the virus can often not be applied there. Social-distancing, for instance, is not a possibility in refugee camps in Europe and the Middle-East. Concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in Moria refugee camp raised as the Greek island of Lesbos recently reported its first cases of coronavirus infections. Moria refugee camp was built in 2016 on the Greek island of Lesbos to originally host 3,100 people, but currently, more than 20,000 refugees are living in the camps in critical conditions. It is reported that in some parts of the camp, there is just one water tap for 1,300 people and one toilet for 167 people. This is just one of many examples of how refugee camps are not prepared for containing the spread of the coronavirus and how they are lacking the basics for protecting the lives of refugees. 

Local authorities and international public health agencies should ensure access to information and support for basic needs. Moreover, the national and international funding addressed to fight the coronavirus should also include resources for refugees and displaced communities, to improve the conditions of the refugee camps, by setting up screening centers and increasing the number of healthcare workers on site.

The global struggles to contain the novel coronavirus cannot be successful if these people are not included and supported with their basic needs for protection and safety. We need to enhance the values of solidarity and equal rights. We need to build trust between communities over nationalistic measures. For a more inclusive society, no one should be left behind.