Social distancing is critical to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on fragile health systems and to protecting those who are most vulnerable. But for many of the 70 million people forced by persecution, conflict and violence to flee their homes for overcrowded refugee and displacement camps, this preventive measure isn't an option.
What's more, the ability to wash one's hands, another crucial safety measure, remains out of reach.
Nearly three-quarters of the people who live in the least developed countries don't have the necessary handwashing facilities at home. Families and children who live in refugee camps and urban slums – the worst form of informal settlement – are particularly deprived. Lack of resources and the close quarters in which they live make them especially vulnerable to viral respiratory infections like the coronavirus.
“So far, we don’t have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst the refugee population as far as we know,” Rula Amin, senior communication adviser and spokesperson for UNHCR in the Middle East and North Africa, said in an interview with AlKhaleej Today on March 18.
But the coronavirus is spreading exponentially, and overcrowding in refugee camps from Jordan to Bangladesh are sure to create environments rife with infection.
Coronavirus infections occur when mucus or droplets containing the virus get passed from person to person, often via their hands. That's why UNICEF is working overtime to promote frequent handwashing — with soap and water — as the easiest way to protect everyone from this escalating pandemic. But in many of the low or middle-income countries, where 20 million of the world's refugees live, fragile water and sanitation infrastructures cannot fully support these lifesaving measures.
Today, in honor of World Water Day, you can do your part to help the world's most vulnerable children and families protect themselves from coronavirus. The UNICEF Inspired Gifts collection offers a variety of water and sanitation supplies to meet families' needs during just such crises. Soap, water purification tablets and a bucket to hold clean water can make a lifesaving difference.
The number of coronavirus cases will continue to grow exponentially, and we need to be prepared. Your gift can help deliver supplies where they are needed most to protect children's health and safety during this critical time.
In Bangladesh, where more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees now live in the overpopulated settlements of Cox's Bazar, personal space is minimal, as are so many of life's necessities. The camps of Cox’s Bazar have acquired some sense of stability since the crisis began in 2017, and hand pumps provide water to many. But problems with contamination persist as UNICEF works to extend a piped supply of safe water to reach everyone.
UNICEF also helped prevent a possible cholera outbreak by vaccinating more than 1.2 million refugees as well as host-community children and adults. But the conditions that allowed cholera to become a threat will increase the risk of coronavirus as will the limited understanding of safe hygiene practices among many families.
In a recent interview with the U.N.’s Global Dispatches podcast, Paul Spiegel, a humanitarian health expert at Johns Hopkins University, warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in the sprawling camps would quickly “overwhelm” Bangladesh’s national health system.
Emergency water and hygiene kits helped traumatized Rohingya families keep their children safe as they have begun the difficult work of setting up provisional households on the deforested hills of Cox's Bazar. As the coronavirus threat looms for the Rohingya, such supplies will be critical to survival.
Escalating violence and insecurity in Mali have sparked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The number of internally displaced people has jumped from around 80,000 to nearly 200,000 in one year. More than half are children and women.
Last year, armed groups attacked Maimouna Barry’s village in Mali’s Mopti region, killing over 150 people, one-third of them children. Maimouna is just one of many forced from home with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. UNICEF and partners rushed critical water and sanitation supplies to the region, including soap, buckets and water purification tablets.
“I had nothing left,” said Maimouna, when she received her share of UNICEF supplies. “The materials were very useful. I could finally store clean water in the shelter I’m staying in.”
In Syria, where some 4.8 million children have been born since the civil war began nine years ago, conflict has destroyed the water treatment facilities so critical to families' daily lives and their ability to fight off disease.
UNICEF and partners have been providing safe water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to 7.3 million people in Syria and the 2.5 million Syrian children who are living as refugees in neighboring countries. Ten-year-old Diaa is one. Since fleeing Syria in 2012, he has lived with his grandmother and other family members in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp.
Before his family was connected to the water network UNICEF helped build at the refugee camp, Diaa used to have to haul 12 buckets of water a day from the communal tap stands. “We used to go far away, where the water was,” he recalls. “It would take us an hour to bring the water all the way home.”
UNICEF and partners have helped 7.3 million people in Syria and neighboring countries access safe water by improving water supply systems and providing water, sanitation and hygiene supplies and services. It will cost $682 million to maintain these lifesaving programs, but funding is already short and coronavirus could heavily burden the existing infrastructure by exposing millions to deadly infection. Recent violence in Syria's northwest, which has displaced over 875,000 Syrians — 80 percent of them women and children — only heightens the risks.
UNICEF works nonstop to deliver lifesaving nutrition, health care, education and protection to children in over 190 countries and territories. UNICEF Inspired Gifts are an opportunity for donors to support these efforts by purchasing specific items to help vulnerable children survive and thrive.
Top photo: A Rohingya girl washes her hands on Global Handwashing Day at a Child-Friendly Space at the Balukhali makeshift refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, in October 2017. © UNICEF/UN0139603/LeMoyne