Why Covid-19 is a ticking time-bomb for the world's displaced people

This opinion piece was first published in the Herald Sun on April 3

Imagine if COVID-19 hit during Australia’s summer bushfire crisis.

As the skies turn red, waves of people are fleeing their homes, the newly homeless scrambling for shelter.

If you’re lucky, you make it to an evacuation centre, crammed into a community hall, a classroom or football club with hundreds of others.

You are still shell-shocked when a global pandemic strikes.

Suddenly, the borders close, for fear of spreading the virus.

You are forced to stay in your cramped, temporary shelter for the foreseeable future.

You’ve escaped one enemy, only to walk straight into the lair of another. Here in this cramped space, you’ve landed in the perfect breeding ground for a voracious virus.

It’s impossible to isolate from your fellow bushfire refugees, painting a big red mark on your back.

Not only that, there are scant books or toys to keep the kids entertained. You haven’t changed your clothes for days. Every cough you hear leaves you gripped with fear.

Now, swap the bushfires for the scenarios in which millions of children and families are enduring around the world - a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, an open field in war-torn Syria.

Emergency supplies dry up as air freight is suspended.  You can’t access necessities like water, food and medicine, and one bar of soap must last your family of six for a week.

Only the lucky ones can access health services and even then, they are overburdened and under-resourced.

More than 400 million children are affected by conflicts and over 70 million people are forcibly displaced around the world, living in the most basic camps and informal settlements. 

For them, COVID-19 is a ticking time bomb. Across the world, humans are facing this challenge together, no matter where we live. But while we’re all fragile, we’re not equally fragile.

The impact will be most acute for those who are already vulnerable due to displacement, conflict and poverty. The people who cannot hoard food and other essential items, because they simply can’t afford a meal every day - or rely on aid for food.

World Vision is particularly concerned about camps and informal settlements.

Reports of cases have already emerged in internal displacement camps across north-west Syria, Iraq and most recently in the township of Cox’s Bazar, neighbouring the world’s biggest refugee camp. 

With often unhygienic and over-crowded living conditions, coupled with limited access to health services, the ramifications are disastrous.

Whatever shred of hope these people may have had of moving or seeking protection has now been ripped away.

One of World Vision’s protection workers, a Syrian grandmother called Ahlam,  recently met a family on the side of the road -a mother, father, a toddler and three small children – and the mum was in labour.

They were carrying just a few bags of firewood and clothes, and the children were terrified and exhausted. The mum’s contractions had started as they fled under the bombardment, and they had no idea where to go.

Ahlam helped find the desperate family shelter in a shared room with another family, where the mother was able to give birth. Three days later they were forced to move again - this time with a baby on board – but that area was heavily bombed. So onwards they marched.

Can you imagine having just given birth with no blankets, medicine or food, fleeing from place to place with your children in subzero temperatures – and with the added fear of an invisible enemy called COVID-19?

This is life for many Syrians today.

But there are measures we can take immediately to respond to these unprecedented challenges.

The UN has launched its first ever-global solidarity respond fund to address COVID 19, providing an opportunity for us to unite and think beyond our individual spheres.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic and it requires local, national and global action and solidarity to combat the spread of the virus across the globe.

Governments should boost investment in strengthening health systems, particularly in countries ill-equipped to prevent and manage the outbreak, and increasing funding for the protection of children and women, and for mental health interventions.

We must also ensure that access to protective equipment, prevention and treatment supplies is available to all.

With the current production rate, access to testing and protective gear for frontline health workers will be problematic.

This is an opportunity to partner with the private sector to increase the production of these supplies and ensure low-income countries have the same ability to manage the spread in their own communities.

As we scale up our own global response at World Vision, children remain at the centre of our work.

We are focusing on protecting vulnerable children in the Pacific, and in other high-risk areas, where health systems are weak or almost non-existent.

That means for frontline workers like Ahlam, the weight on her shoulders has now doubled.

She must continue providing critical protection services to Syrian children and, at the same time, introduce measures to combat COVID 19.

What she does every day reminds me of a Martin Luther King quote: "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope." 

And that is exactly what our staff are spreading in the most dangerous of places. Hope. And do that, they need our support now more than ever before.

World Vision Australia has launched a COVID-19 appeal in a growing effort to protect the world’s most vulnerable at www.worldvision.com.au/end-corona.

Nadine Haddad is World Vision Australia’s Conflict and Fragility Senior Advisor

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