Shahin Ashraf, Islamic Relief’s head of global advocacy, warns that without further humanitarian intervention COVID-19 will inflict a terrible toll on displaced people and their livelihoods.

Shahin Ashraf, Islamic Relief’s head of global advocacy.

Of the more than 7 billion people on Earth, few are now untouched by the coronavirus crisis. The dangerous virus has turned the world on its head, ended lives too soon, and – for many of us – changed the way we live and engage with other people.

With over 3.6 million confirmed cases so far, over a third of the planet’s population has been on lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. Some countries are now cautiously starting to lift restrictions on movement, but elsewhere full or partial lockdowns remain – with others likely having to introduce restrictions as the virus gets a foothold.

‘Stay home, stay safe, save lives’ is the crucial rallying cry. But what if home is nothing but a distant memory? What if home is a tent in a crowded refugee camp? Or a makeshift shelter in an abandoned building?

That’s the grim reality for many families facing the deadly disease COVID-19.

Uprooted from their homes by conflict or natural disaster, many rely on humanitarian organisations to provide a lifeline. Already in crisis, they now face yet another.

Islamic Relief, which is supporting those affected by some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, knows all too well how vulnerable displaced families are in this pandemic.

A COVID outbreak could deepen suffering in war-torn Yemen, where millions are already on the brink of survival.

Catastrophe looms large for those uprooted from their homes

We know that on reaching Syria’s overcrowded camps or Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh – where over 40,000 people are crammed into each square kilometre – there’s currently little to slow the rampant spread of coronavirus from tent to tent and family to family. The stringent social distancing measures needed to slow the spread will not be available to those displaced.

COVID-19 could devastate displaced families in war-torn Yemen, where almost 16 million people wake up hungry every morning. Years of blockade and conflict for Palestinians in Gaza, with its population made up mostly of refugees, has left it with few resources to respond to this new threat.

And the virus also threatens makeshift camps sheltering people in West Africa trying to escape not only conflict, but also the effects of climate change, as natural disasters like drought and flooding becoming increasingly frequent and intense.

Since displaced people typically lack nutrition and access to potentially lifesaving water, hygiene, sanitation and healthcare, the consequences of a COVID-19 outbreak would be catastrophic.

Coronavirus would be getting its claws into people who are already on the edge of survival.

In Mali, COVID could be particularly catastrophic for families fleeing conflict and the effects of climate change.

Help for displaced people facing coronavirus

Our staff, volunteers and supporters share the losses and anxiety caused by COVID-19. But we do not forget the many people who desperately need our help. Those who, without humanitarian intervention, are least able to cope and likely will pay the heaviest price in this health crisis.

As the pandemic worsens many pre-existing vulnerabilities and gives rise to new ones, organisations like Islamic Relief are needed more than ever. Many people rely on our humanitarian programmes. We are rapidly finding new ways of working, to continue to deliver aid whilst observing social distancing.

Our water, sanitation and hygiene projects, for example, need to ensure people aren’t queuing close together for water – so we must facilitate social distancing by increasing water deliveries, adding temporary water points, appointing ‘caretakers’ to reduce the number of people touching taps, and enabling families to store water at home for longer.

With our Ramadan food distribution programme firmly underway, we’ve adapted our distributions to ensure 1 million vulnerable people still get the help they need, whilst delivering food parcels in the safest ways we can. The health and safety of our staff, our partners and the communities we serve is Islamic Relief s top priority.

A woman in Gaza buys food using an Islamic Relief voucher – one of the ways in which Islamic Relief has adapted its Ramadan distributions in line with local COVID guidelines.

In camps, where it’s difficult – if not impossible – for families to maintain social distance, handwashing is an especially important measure. Equally critical is that displaced people receive the information they need to help reduce transmission. From Mali to Yemen, Syria to Somalia and across the world, Islamic Relief is engaging communities through information campaigns and promoting good hygiene as part of our support for global efforts to fight coronavirus.

Fighting coronavirus together

Islamic Relief’s global COVID-19 response aims to respond in every country in which we have an office. We’re supporting the people most at risk. As well as those who are displaced from their homes by crisis and living in overcrowded conditions, this includes older people, those with serious health conditions, and those without access to clean water or medical care.

As well as promoting good hygiene practices and empowering communities with information, we’re already on the ground supporting and strengthening health systems. In countries such as Afghanistan, Kenya and South Sudan we’re equipping health workers with lifesaving personal protective equipment (PPE).

Understanding that the long term effects of this global health crisis could be grave for many, Islamic Relief’s COVID plan also includes making sure these, and the secondary impacts, are considered from the outset.

The scale of the challenge is enormous. So much more is needed in the days, weeks and months ahead. But Islamic Relief will not step back.

All aspects of life have a charitable input – whether in education, protection, health, family, faith or leadership. Millions will come out of this global health crisis with livelihoods in ruins, incomes lowered, and family members lost. It is up to us and we must take this seriously, not only during the peak of the crisis but also when we begin to exit it.

For those for whom home is not a safe place, for those who face this disease from an already precarious starting point, for those who need us more than ever, we step forward. And we do so together.

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