For Refugee Camps, Covid-19 Is a Death Sentence
“If an outbreak were to happen, it would be close to impossible to contain,” Syrian-American activist Leena Zahia said last week on a webinar organized by Northwestern University’s colloquium on refugees, immigrants, and statelessness.
She was speaking about the possibility of a Covid-19 epidemic in the refugee camps, both inside and outside Syria, that cumulatively house millions of people displaced by the civil war, a prospect that gives public health and aid workers nightmares these days. In the camp of Vial, on the Greek island of Chios, for example, more than 6,000 people are now crammed into a space intended for about 1,000.
The paucity of food in the refugee camps has led to an epidemic of malnourishment. There is a lack of basic sanitation, with far too few toilets and bathrooms. And there are next to no state-of-the-art medical supplies and very few doctors. In the camps in and around Syria, for example, Zahia estimates only 1.4 doctors for every 10,000 people.
Madi Williamson, a humanitarian aid worker and nurse with the In-Sight Collaborative who works in the Syrian camps, says there’s an epidemic of respiratory problems among residents, who have to cook over and breathe the smoke from wooden fires. In addition to lung damage, many are suffering serious war wounds. They lack space to exercise and the means to eat healthy food, just as they are about to begin a month of fasting during Ramadan. They have already been exposed to a brutal flu season this year, all of which means they are especially vulnerable to Covid-19.
Williamson says the supply chains for relief organizations have been disrupted, with food, medicine, and basic sanitation products not arriving during the pandemic. “Refugees know they are at the bottom of the food chain,” she explains. “The conditions are terrible.” If the camps become coronavirus hot spots, Williamson and her colleagues believe, more could end up dying of the disease than have died during the nine years of the Syrian civil war.
The Signal this week: So preoccupied are we by our own fears and by the US pandemic calamity that we risk forgetting the misfortunes piled on misfortune of the 70 million people around the world currently displaced by war and social collapse.
Last fall, the Trump administration cut America’s refugee admissions cap to the lowest level in the history of the program. At 18,000, it’s less than one-sixth the cap set during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, however, even those few admissions have been put on hold. Since the pandemic hit the United States, the administration has stopped admissions, as well as interviews for the program.
At the same time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has refused to release medically vulnerable detainees, despite pleas from doctors and immigrant-rights groups. As of the start of April, at least four detainees and five ICE agents had tested positive for Covid-19. Those numbers will surely escalate.
This is all in keeping with the Trump strategy of locking out and locking up immigrants it deems undesirable—and of viewing America and Americans not as part of an international community that stands or falls together but as combatants in a zero-sum game, in which for America to win others must lose. How else to explain the fact that in February, as the pandemic was taking off, Trump proposed US funding cuts of 35 percent to global health programs? This came on top of aid cuts over the past few years to the Palestinian Authority, Central American nations, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries—all of which are now even more limited in their ability to respond to the pandemic.
How else to justify last week’s extraordinary forced diversion from a warehouse in Bangkok of 200,000 medical masks, already paid for by the Germans, to the United States? Or Trump’s ordering the mask manufacturer 3M not to meet agreed-upon deliveries of personal protective equipment to Canada and Central America, even though the company warned about the humanitarian consequences of withholding such supplies?
Trump’s actions have so infuriated allies that Berlin’s interior minister accused him of “modern piracy,” saying this is not how allies treat each other. In response to Trump’s order to 3M, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointed out that medical professionals and essential supplies cross the border in both directions. And behind the scenes, the British government was apparently lobbying hard last week to keep trade routes open in the face of Trump’s “damaging protectionism.”
In this moment of fear and crisis, we have to make crucial choices. Do we become nasty and selfish, or do we embrace the spirit of humanism and global cooperation? Trump believes we are fundamentally selfish beings. But the volunteers who are risking their health by continuing to staff food banks or deliver care packages to the elderly, the retired nurses and doctors answering the call to return to work, the families sewing medical masks for frontline workers, are betting that the spirit of cooperation and creative collaboration, of solidarity and concern for others, will ultimately win out.
A group of Afghan women and girls talk in the Vial refugee camp on the island of Chios, in Greece. (Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP via Getty Images)
Meanwhile, the administration continues to punish the messengers who bring unwelcome news: When Navy Capt. Brett Crozier expressed concerns that 4,000 sailors on his aircraft carrier were at risk from the epidemic spreading on board his ship—a contagion that, within days, would infect the captain himself—the Pentagon fired him rather than act on his recommendations to evacuate the crew members to safety.
And the Noise? Trump saying he couldn’t imagine himself wearing a face mask to greet foreign leaders, including “dictators.” After all, dear readers, it simply wouldn’t do for America’s wannabe-Mussolini to meet dictators—clearly a priority for a well-focused head of government during a pandemic that is now killing more Americans on a daily basis than citizens of any other country—in anything other than his face-naked, gargoyle-like Sunday best.