Deprived of means, Syrian refugees face mounting virus threat

No cases have been officially recorded yet among Syrian refugees, who number approximately 1 million of Lebanon's population of 6 million.
Sunday 22/03/2020
Syrian refugees are pictured in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17 amidst the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. (AFP)
Syrian refugees are pictured in a building under construction they have been using as a shelter in the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon, on March 17 amidst the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. (AFP)

AKFAR, SYRIA--Syrian refugee Mohamed al-Bakhas is trying to protect his family from coronavirus infection by keeping their camp as clean as he can but, without enough soap or the money to buy sanitiser or face masks, there is only so much he can do.

"They gave us an awareness session and one bar of soap each but this is not enough," said Bakhas, 40, referring to aid workers who visited his camp in northern Lebanon in mid-March.

"We ask for disinfectants, sanitisers for the camp. We are a big group," said Bakhas, who fled to Lebanon from Homs in Syria eight years ago and lives with his wife and child.

Lebanon has recorded 149 cases of coronavirus and at least four people have died from the virus. No cases have been officially recorded yet among Syrian refugees, who number approximately 1 million of Lebanon's population of 6 million.

As Lebanon's public health system struggles with the outbreak, the government is worried about the virus spreading to camps holding Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Syrian Refugees Map


Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hasan said refugee health care was a responsibility shared by the state and UN agencies but he said the international community has been slow to react to the crisis.

"The international community with its UN agencies is a bit late in putting plans, thinking about establishing a field hospital or supporting the Health Ministry so that it can carry out its obligations towards its people, Lebanese society in addition to the Palestinian and Syrian brothers," Hassan said.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said efforts to fight the spread of coronavirus to refugee communities had started early on. Awareness campaigns and the distribution of hygiene materials were under way and preparations were being made for additional hospitalisation capacity that may be needed.

"We are all working around the clock," said Lisa Abou Khaled, communications officer at UNHCR in Lebanon.

Given the high population density of the camps, Hassan noted the difficulties of maintaining personal hygiene and said the spread of coronavirus was a real danger. Field hospitals would allow for the isolation and treatment of the infected.

"The international community and UN institutions must without delay prepare the ground to save these communities in case the virus spreads among them," he said.

Lebanon was grappling with a financial and economic crisis before coronavirus hit. The government is appealing for foreign aid for its public health system.

Coronavirus poses a host of new difficulties to refugees who have been struggling in poverty for years in Lebanon.

With water mostly trucked to their camps, refugees do not have enough for regular handwashing, relief workers said. As it stands, accessing health care can also be a problem. If refugees need to go to hospital, they cannot afford the journey or pay for treatment.

"We are exploring all options including setting up additional facilities in existing hospitals or separate field hospitals. It’s likely that a combination of both will be needed," Abou Khaled said.

(Reuters)

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