Keeping Refugees Healthy Keeps Everyone Safe

Somali refugee children play around their shelters in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, third largest in the world. 2015 (Photo by B. Bannon courtesy UNHCR)

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 21, 2020 ( Community Solutions News) – “If ever we needed reminding that we live in an interconnected world, the novel coronavirus has brought that home,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi as the UN Refugee Agency and the World Health Organization today signed a new agreement to strengthen public health services for the millions forcibly displaced from their communities.

The agreement updates and expands an existing 1997 agreement between the two organizations. Today, both organizations are working to curb the spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensure that forcibly displaced people can access the health services they need to keep safe.

A key aim this year will be to support ongoing efforts to protect from COVID-19 some 71 million forcibly displaced people. Around 26 million of these  people are refugees, 80 percent of whom are sheltered in low and middle-income countries with weak health systems.

Another 40 million internally displaced people also require assistance.

The novel coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization in late December 2019. Since then, 215 countries have been affected by the disease it causes, COVID-19, and there are now 134 refugee-hosting countries reporting local transmission of COVID-19.

“UNHCR’s long-term partnership with WHO is critical to curb the coronavirus pandemic and other emergencies – day in, day out, it is improving and saving lives of millions of people forced to flee their homes,” Grandi said.

“Our strengthened partnership will directly benefit refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and those who are stateless. It leads to better emergency response and will make the best use of the resources of both our two organizations for public health solutions across all our operations globally,” he said.

For more than 20 years, UNHCR and WHO have worked together worldwide to safeguard the health of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. They have collaborated to provide health services to refugees in every region – from the onset of an emergency and through protracted situations, consistently advocating for the inclusion of refugees and stateless people in the national public health plans of host countries.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi (left) and Director-General World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sign a Memorandum of Understanding on the integration of refugees in national health preparedness and response plans globally. May 21, 2020, Geneva, Switzerland (Photo by Christopher Black courtesy World Health Organization) Posted for media use

“The principle of solidarity and the goal of serving vulnerable people underpin the work of both our organizations,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We stand side by side in our commitment to protect the health of all people who have been forced to leave their homes and to ensure that they can obtain health services when and where they need them. The ongoing pandemic only highlights the vital importance of working together so we can achieve more,” Dr. Tedros said.

During Thursday’s signing UNHCR also joined the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Launched on March 13, the fund has raised US$214 million to date.

The first fund of its kind, the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund allows individuals, companies, and organizations all over the world to contribute directly to the global response being led by WHO to help countries prevent, detect and respond to the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

A US$10 million contribution from the Solidarity Response Fund will support UNHCR’s work on urgent needs such as risk communication and community engagement around hygiene practices; provision of hygiene and medical supplies and the establishment of isolation units in countries such as Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, South Sudan and Uganda.

The contribution will also support innovative global preparedness activities.

“By joining forces with the Solidarity Response Fund, UNHCR can work together on the ground with WHO to better ensure that the preparedness, prevention and public health response measures to COVID-19 are in place and that much-needed aid can reach refugees, displaced people and their host communities,” said Grandi.

UNHCR says, “What this global coronavirus outbreak has undeniably demonstrated, is that the health of every person is linked to the health of the most marginalized and vulnerable members in a society. And these members often include refugees, stateless people and internally displaced people.”

For instance, on May 20, the Government of Kenya confirmed that two individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Dadaab refugee camps.

In line with the Government of Kenya’s directives, the two were placed in quarantine and then moved to isolation centers after positive test results were received. The Ministry of Health’s Disease Surveillance and Response team has begun contact tracing.

The crowded conditions in the three Dadaab refugee camps, where health services are already under pressure, raise serious concerns about the vulnerability of over 217,000 refugees and 320,000 host communities living in the camps and surrounding areas.

UNHCR and other UN agencies have been supporting the government-led countrywide response plan to prevent further spread of the virus in the refugee camps.

In Dadaab, beds for an additional 955 people have been provided. An additional 125 hand-washing stations have been installed at food distribution sites, schools and markets.

Health centres have been provided with 68 personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff. Refugee-led groups have produced more than 150,000 cloth masks which will be ready for distribution in the coming days.

A woman washes her hands at a cash-distribution site in Nsanje District, southern Malawi, as part of measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 2020 (Photo courtesy World Food Programme) Posted for media use

There are currently 18 medical doctors, 150 nurses, 52 clinicians, 11 lab technicians and 336 community health volunteers working in the three Dadaab refugee camps. All health workers have been trained on COVID-19 prevention and response, and psycho-social support services have been strengthened along with dedicated helplines.

Hygiene awareness campaigns on COVID19 prevention have reached more than 200,000 refugees through local radio, posters, leaflets, WhatsApp messages, social media and dedicated websites in Somali, Oromo, Dinka, Swahili, Nuer, French, and English.

UNHCR, World Food Programme and partners have provided double rations of food and hygiene products such as soap and jerrycans, to minimize the need for large gatherings and queues.

But more help is needed to keep the virus from spreading in the close quarters of refugee camps. UNHCR’s Global COVID-19 Response Appeal has so far received 31 percent of the US$745 million the agency says is needed to assist refugees impacted by the disease.

UNHCR is calling on the international community to continue and step up its support in order to ensure that vulnerable refugees, asylum-seekers and host communities have access to adequate health services and care.

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