COVID-19’s devastating impact on refugee communities

By Saksha Menezes |


The worldwide effects of the coronavirus have been nothing short of catastrophic. At time of writing, confirmed global cases pass one million and death toll passes 51,000. It is uncertain how fast those figures will rise.

The economic impact, so far, has also been severe, and is almost certain to become much worse. In the US, the number of people filing for unemployment has reached a record high of 6.5 million. Chinese industrial production fell by 13.5% in the first two months of the year, significant given that China makes up a third of manufacturing globally.

“The world’s economy could grow at its slowest rate since 2009”

The growth rate of the economy is also set to stagnate. The world’s economy could grow at its slowest rate since 2009 due to the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Governments all over the world have insisted we can stop the spread of the virus through ‘social distancing’. This, as defined by the UK government is a set of measures taken to reduce social interaction between people in order to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. But what if that isn’t possible?

For example, what about refugees? During the summer of 2019, I spent 3 weeks volunteering in a school with twenty five 8-year-old Syrian refugee children in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. The school was situated inside a refugee camp. In their short lives, they had gone through so much suffering. Having been torn from their homes, they now live in a refugee camp in appalling conditions.

A refugee camp in Turkey. Credit|

The Lebanese government has said that people are meant to stay in their homes but how is that possible in a refugee camp? Families sharing a tiny tent, non-existent sanitation and toilets shared between hundreds of people. Advice to ‘wash your hands’ becomes redundant when there isn’t clean water or adequate soap.

Especially given the attitude of the Lebanese government towards the refugees in the past, it is unclear what medical and social support will be given to them. As it stands, Syrian refugees constitute 25% of the Lebanese population and the growing strain of the population increase can be seen in many aspects of life in the country.

There have been incidents of forced deportation and harassment of Syrian refugees from both the authorities and local communities given that the government is now urging the refugees to return to Syria given that Bashar Al-Asaad is regaining support and control.

” Gaza’s public health system…is chronically short of drugs and equipment”

Given these circumstances, Lebanon’s response to the coronavirus and its efforts to minimise harm to its citizens is unlikely to include Syrian refugees. For example, the government announced free testing for the coronavirus in the public Rafiq Hariri University Hospital in Beirut but it has not mentioned whether refugees are eligible.

There are no cases reported in refugee camps in Lebanon at the moment but sadly, it is only a matter of time. However, nearby, there are over 100 cases reported in the West Bank and Gaza and as both are densely overpopulated, with Gaza having one of the highest population densities in the world. On average, 5,479 people live in every square kilometre.

“This could be a tipping point. Gaza is in very dire straits”

Jamie McGoldrick, chair of the UN COVID-19 Task Force for the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Given this, the infection rate is likely to be rapid. Particularly since Gaza’s public health system has been severely tested by repeated military conflicts with Israel over the past 12 years and is chronically short of drugs and equipment. An Israeli blockade, in place since 2007 although eased in recent years, has limited the import of medicines and other essential items.

“This could be a tipping point. Gaza is in very dire straits. The health system has been in shocking state for a long time,’’ said Jamie McGoldrick, who chairs the United Nations’ COVID-19 task force for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This is not an isolated example. What are the refugees in Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos to do? A camp built for 3,100 is currently housing 20,000. Or in the overpopulated slums in India? Dharavi slum in Mumbai, one of the world’s largest, has an incredible population density of 4,40,000 persons per square kilometre. What are these people meant to do?

If you would like to donate to aid the provision of care to refugees, please follow the link below: