According to Oxfam, refugees living in camps are sharing one tap between up to 250 people and many have less than 3.5 square metres of living space per person – smaller than the average UK bathroom – which will make it extremely difficult to contain a coronavirus outbreak.
The virus could also be catastrophic for people in places hit by conflicts, like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, who are already struggling with malnutrition, diseases like cholera and a lack of clean water and health facilities.
The standards for refugee camps, agreed by agencies responding to humanitarian crises, were not designed to cope with a global pandemic.
They state that there should be one tap for no more than 250 people and 3.5 square metres of living space per person.
In some cases, even these minimum requirements are not met.
The sprawling Rohingya refugee camp at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is severely overcrowded with 40,000 people per square kilometre, the equivalent of the population of Canterbury in an area two thirds the size of Hyde Park.
Malnutrition and diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid are already a high risk in Cox’s Bazar, undermining the health of the communities. There is also very limited access to basic health services, let alone more specialized care.
In Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was built for 3000 people but now hosts nearly 20,000 people, there are up to 160 people using the same toilet and over 500 people per one shower. In some parts of the camp, 325 people share one tap and there is no soap. Fifteen to 20 people can be living in a single shipping container, or in tents or makeshift shelters.
The World Health Organisation advice is that people should stay a metre away from anyone coughing or sneezing, wash their hands frequently and seek medical help as soon as symptoms become apparent to avoid spreading coronavirus.
Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB’s chief executive, said: “All of us here in the UK have been affected by coronavirus as we worry about loved ones and confine ourselves to our homes to help stop its spread.
“For many of the world’s most vulnerable, basic preventive measures like staying at home or washing hands more frequently, are simply impossible. For those in overcrowded camps living in a space smaller than the average British bathroom social distancing is not an option.
“As we struggle with the terrible and devastating impact of this global pandemic, we also need to do everything we can to prevent it spreading to those who face heightened risk and are least able to cope.”
Oxfam’s expertise is in water, sanitation and hygiene – vital for attempts to manage the rate of infections – and it is working closely with local partner organisations in vulnerable communities to increase the number of communal taps and availability of clean running water, and to raise awareness about improved hygiene practices.
More funds are needed to rapidly scale up this lifesaving work.
Oxfam is also concerned about risk of gender-based violence as families are forced to remain in their already cramped shelters and support centres and networks are closed. Beyond refugee camps, many other communities with whom Oxfam works are particularly vulnerable to the disease. In Gaza, where there are already 10 confirmed cases, there are 5000 people per square kilometre and fewer than 70 intensive care beds for a population of two million.
In Yemen, only half of health centres are functioning, and those that are open face severe shortages of medicines, equipment and staff. Around 17 million people – more than half the population – have no clean water.
Efforts to respond to humanitarian crises in several locations, like Yemen and Syria, were already underfunded.
Now they must compete for the resources to fight the coronavirus while the world reels from the economic effects of widespread shut-downs. The UN has called for $2 billion to fund a global coordinated response to coronavirus in vulnerable countries.
Sriskandarajah said: “The UK government’s efforts are rightly currently focused on preventing the spread of the virus and helping people throughout the UK. But this is a truly global threat and we’ve thankfully yet to see the devastation caused when the virus reaches the world’s most vulnerable. Leadership needs to extend beyond our borders – not least because a truly global response is needed to bring the virus under control. It can be shown in helping ensure the UN appeal is fully funded, and in actively supporting the call for a global ceasefire to help countries in conflict deal with the threat of coronavirus.”
(Information: Oxfam Press Office) – Photos: Pixabay