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Coronavirus Hits Greek Refugee Camps; Thousands at Risk

The World Health Organization recommends several courses of action to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus, including regularly washing your hands, staying at home if you feel unwell, and practicing physical distancing by staying away from large groups of people. These measures have proven difficult to adhere to for many people living in the West. For the 110,000 people stuck in Greece’s refugee camps, including 40,000 on the Aegean islands close to Turkey, they are almost impossible to follow.

The Moria refugee camp

Located on the island of Lesbos, Moria is the most infamous of all of Greece’s camps. Amnesty International called the camp an “open wound” for Europe and human rights. Luca Fontana, the field manager for Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), told Al Jazeera that Moria was worse than any camp he’d worked at in Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I’ve never seen the level of suffering that we are witnessing here on a daily basis,” he said. “Moria is the worst place I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Moria is a facility that was originally constructed for 3,000 people but now houses over 20,000. The overcrowding is what make the measures recommended by the WHO essentially impossible to follow. Journalist Silke Mertens describes the conditions: One water faucet for 1,300 people, a three square meter tent that houses families of five or six, a shower and toilet shared by 200, three doctors responsible for the population of the entire camp. And if there is a serious outbreak on the island, local medical authorities will be completely overwhelmed, as there are only six ICU beds for the 20,000 refugees and 86,000 residents of Lesbos.

NGO’s warn about Coronavirus in the camps

Aid agencies have sent warnings about the possibility of a Covid outbreak in the Greek refugee camps. MSF called for the immediate evacuation of all of the camps on the islands.

“It would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings in Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, and Kos. To this day we have not seen a credible emergency plan to protect and treat people living there in case of an outbreak,” said Dr. Hilde Vochten, MSF’s medical coordinator in Greece.

Thus far, no refugee on the Greek islands has tested positive for the virus, although on Lesbos six cases have been confirmed among the residents.

Positive tests in two camps on the mainland

Last week, a woman staying in the Ritsona refugee camp in central Greece became the first refugee to test positive for Coronavirus. Subsequent testing revealed that twenty others in the camp have also been infected. None of them were exhibiting symptoms. The camp has been since been placed under quarantine, and police are carefully controlling the movement of the refugees. On Sunday, Greek authorities quarantined the camp of Malakasa after one of its residents tested positive.

The virus and the refugee camps on the islands

According to Kayvan Bozorgmehr, a doctor and professor from the School of Public Health at Bielefeld University in Germany, it is only a matter of time before the Coronavirus makes its way into the refugee camps on the islands. He warns about the likely consequences.

“It is very likely that refugees will become infected with the … virus in host communities or in hospitals,” he told Al Jazeera. “An uncontrolled spread in camp contexts, such as those on the Greek islands, may lead to a public health disaster as measures of social distancing and quarantine are impossible in these settings.”

As Europe struggles to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, it has a responsibility to protect its most vulnerable residents. Dr. Vochten of MSF concurs:

“Forcing people to live [in the camps] as part of Europe’s containment policy was always irresponsible, but with the virus spreading it is on the verge of becoming criminal if no action is taken to protect people.”

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Richard Hardigan is a university professor based in California. He is the author of  The Other Side of the Wall. His website is richardhardigan.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @RichardHardigan.

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