In Depth

Coronavirus in the Middle East: ‘a perfect storm is gathering’

Millions of refugees in failing states in ‘mortal peril’ from Covid-19 spread

Middle East analysts are warning that the region could be devastated by the arrival of coronavirus.

The lives of more than 20 million vulnerable refugees and displaced people are in danger, and little is being done to address the problem.

Refugees at risk

People in the region are in “mortal peril”, says the Financial Times. “Millions of vulnerable refugees, packed into a chain of failing states with wrecked health systems and racked by proxy and sectarian conflicts, have the potential to combine and combust.”

In Syrian refugee camps, patients are dying from what appears to be coronavirus, but doctors cannot treat people because they don’t have the beds, protective gear or respiratory equipment.

“The one thing that everyone is stressing in combating the coronavirus is to create social distance but that is precisely what is impossible for refugees,” said Deepmala Mahla, the regional director for Asia for CARE, the humanitarian aid agency. “Where do you go to create space? There is no space,” The New York Times reports.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has suspended some of its work in Libya, resulting in hundreds of refugees being forced out of UN-run centres.

“We are afraid about this disease, we are confined in our home,” an Eritrean man in Tripoli told The Guardian. “If the disease [comes to] Libya it will be very dangerous, especially for the refugees, because we live densely in one place.”

Refugees International, a humanitarian organisation that advocates for better support for refugees, has produced a report addressing the threat of coronavirus to displaced people.

Its vice-president for programmes and policy, Hardin Lang, said that “in this time of global pandemic, we must not lose sight of the world’s most vulnerable populations”, says the BBC.

“If we think this is a big issue in the US and Europe, we haven’t seen anything yet if Covid gets into the refugee population,” said Adam Coutts, a public health researcher at Cambridge University. “People can’t even wash their kids, let alone wash their hands.”

Limited healthcare systems

As far as the Middle East is concerned, “all bets are off”, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in the Financial Times.

Syria, Libya and Yemen all have limited resources and medical infrastructure. In Syria, hospitals and other medical facilities have come under direct attack from the regime and its Russian allies, says the BBC.

“Social distancing, even soap and water, are luxuries for many of these desperate people. So, too, is information on their plight,” says the FT. “So far, there appears to be not a single case reported among Syrian refugees across the Levant. That in itself tells a story – unless you believe in miracles.”

In Afghanistan, healthcare workers are bracing for what is to come. “I have to keep my mood well, but I’m worried about my family,” a worker in an infectious diseases department told The Guardian, before returning to the hospital for a 24-hour shift.

“We haven’t tested ourselves for Covid-19 yet. If someone in our department tests positive, the hospital will be paralysed and there will be no one to provide the services.”

One UN official for the region said: “A perfect storm is gathering. Many countries around the world are facing surges [in infections] but most of them can see it.

“But here there is a risk we’ll wake up one day and find hundreds upon hundreds of thousands have already got it and there’s almost nothing to be done.”

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Religious way of life

The way of life in much of the Middle East is governed by religion, and some communities are not changing their practices quickly enough.

In Israel, officials are considering blockading communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are refusing to stick to rules aimed at containing the coronavirus.

Infection rates in ultra-Orthodox communities are significantly higher than the rest of Israel, Haaretz reports, with the country yesterday confirming a total of 4,831 cases and 17 deaths.

The paper adds that despite making up only 12% of Israel’s population, the ultra-Orthodox account for 40 to 60% of coronavirus patients at four major hospitals.

And the Muslim population is also at risk. Shia pilgrims returning to Iraq from Syria have tested positive for coronavirus, suggesting that such movements risk spreading the disease.

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