In the infamous Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, 26,000 migrants eke out a desperate existence in a facility built for just 2,800. The paths are strewn with garbage and sewage pipes burst often. Residents line up for hours for a chance to shower, and even then, there’s no hot water.
Families sleep cheek by jowl in tents. Scabies, lice, and respiratory problems are commonplace. It’s far from the new life in Europe they hoped for — and it’s the perfect breeding ground for the coronavirus.
As COVID-19 threatens Moria, and other camps like it in Europe and the Middle East, aid agencies are scrambling to prepare for what they fear will be a devastating outbreak.
Concerns have grown so severe that Doctors Without Borders called Thursday for Moria and others on the Greek islands to be evacuated immediately. Fears about the situation have surged in recent days since the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed on Lesbos.
“In some parts of Moria camp there is just one water tap for every 1,300 people, and no soap available,” said Hilde Vochten, the organization’s medical coordinator in Greece.
“Families of five or six have to sleep in spaces of no more than three square meters [32 square feet]. This means that recommended measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus are just impossible.”
Aid agencies are doing what they can to prepare for an outbreak among refugees, with the U.N. Refugee Agency appealing for an urgent $33 million needed for the response. Aid workers are training staff and issuing them with protective gear, equipping labs to carry out diagnostic tests, building new latrines and wash facilities, and spreading awareness on hygiene.
But reminders on handwashing are of little use in camps with little or no access to clean water. Aid workers know if an outbreak hits, the situation could swiftly become catastrophic.
“We need to be realistic: It would be impossible to contain an outbreak in such camp settings,” said Vochten. “To this day we have not seen a credible emergency plan to protect and treat people living there in case of an outbreak.”
In Syria, the outlook is equally grim. Erin Taylor, spokeswoman for Save the Children, told VICE News that her organization was working with partners prepare for an outbreak.
“However, the reality is that after nine years of conflict, the health system and infrastructure that would be vital in combating any public health emergency have been decimated.”