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The New Arab Staff & Agencies

Coronavirus crisis mounting in refugee camps as conditions worsen

The refugee crisis is being exacerbated by covid-19 [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 September, 2020

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Covid-19 cases in refugee camps across the Middle East have spiked in the last month.
Coronavirus cases across refugee camps in the Middle East - particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories - have increased sharply in September, prompting aid agencies to voice concerns over the virus and its impact on refugee communities.

Aid agencies said they are grappling with the rise in case numbers. The Palestine Red Crescent Society, along with the Lebanese Red Cross are working to provide 19,700 food baskets and 1,000 family hygiene kits to several Palestinian camps, according to the Qatar Red Crescent.

Elsewhere the virus has reached Jordan's Zaatari camp, the kingdom's largest camp for Syrian refugees, and the smaller Azraq camp, concerning aid workers who say the camps are already suffering food shortages and cannot deal with an outbreak, the agency added.

"This is also causing a poverty pandemic, that will result in serious protection risks," Rula Amin, UNHCR's regional communications spokesperson told The Guardian.

In a report published by The New Arab in the beginning of September, the International Rescue Committee said that  the number of Covid-19 cases had risen by 1,000 percent since August in northeast Syria.

"After nearly 10 years of war, the health system in the northeast was already incredibly weak – and the pandemic is going to push it beyond breaking point," Dr. Mohammed Abdalgadir, the IRC Medical Coordinator for Northeast Syria, told The New Arab.

And it's not just Syria. According to the Iraqi health ministry, 5,036 new coronavirus infections were confirmed on Friday, bringing the total number of cases across the country to 252,075, of which 191,368 had recovered and 7,359 died.

Lebanon said it confirmed 1,006 new novel coronavirus cases and 11 deaths from the disease in 24 hours, in a new record for the crisis-hit country.

The figures from the health ministry brought Lebanon's total tally since February to 29,303 Covid-19 cases, including 297 deaths.

UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said it is concerned about the rise.

"People are struggling to feed their children, or to send them to school. There are issues with early marriage, child labour. There is also an economic crisis, which is plunging deeper and deeper and this will have serious long term effects," Amin said.

"And of course there are widespread health issues with the capacity of host communities already struggling. This capacity will be massively overstretched if this outbreak becomes more prevalent. How will they be able to treat and service such large numbers of cases?"

There are more than 15 million internally displaced people in the region, and all of them are at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19.

"With winter arriving in the coming months, it's urgent to contain the current outbreak and get the situation under control before it reaches catastrophic levels," Amin added.

"In north-west Syria, cases are increasing dramatically. We fear that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the true scale of the problem. Testing capacity is insufficient, and [fewer] than 9,000 tests have been administered to date. But lack of testing is just one of the many challenges people in north-west Syria are facing."

With UN aid cut to several countries including Syria, and funding challenges, Covid-19 is a huge problem in the region.

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to find $15 billion over the next three months to fund the ACT-Accelerator programme, a global collaboration to hunt for a vaccine and treatments led by the UN's World Health Organization (WHO).

Read more: Syria Insight: Fears of Covid-19 outbreak in northern Syria camps

"Either we stand together or we will be doomed," Guterres told an ACT-Accelerator virtual meeting, calling the virus the "number one global security threat".

"We need a quantum leap in funding to increase the chances of a global solution to get the world moving, working and prospering again," he said.

He said the near $3 billion contributed so far had been critical for the initial phase since the accelerator's launch four months ago, but $35 billion more was needed to shift from start-up to scale-up - beginning with $15 billion in the next three months.

Without it "we will lose the window of opportunity", Guterres said.

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