Coronavirus case in Lesbos sparks fear for refugee camp dwellers


The news of a confirmed case of COVID-19 on the island of Lesbos just 10 miles from the Moria refugee camp, has sparked fears of the impact of an outbreak inside the camp where refugees live in appalling condition with little medical care.

The conditions in the camp have worsened this week with more refugees arriving from Turkey, and tensions on the island have seen several NGOs forced to reduce or close services over safety fears.

Over the past week doctors and journalists have been attacked by vigilantes as anger has grown over the number of migrants arriving by sea and the continuing growth of the camp. Parts of the camp, including warehouses storing food and a school set up by volunteers, were destroyed in fires.

The situation for the 20,000 people living in and around Moria camp was already dire. With almost half the camp’s population aged under 18 and many families living without tents or any form of shelter, even a short closure of basic services leaves many vulnerable people in danger.

On Monday when the Guardian visited some NGOs had only just returned after days of closures, with other services still suspended.

Médecins San Frontières (MSF) was one of the organisations to suspend their services in the camp for two days in the wake of the violence. Mie Terkelsen, nurse activity manager for MSF in Lesbos, said that following the brief closure they had been “overwhelmed” with patients.

One of the main concerns for MSF over the past year is how the lack of hygiene in the camp is contributing to ongoing health conditions. Terkelsen said MSF keep seeing the same issues: “It’s scabies and lice, things like that, which are because of the bad sanitary conditions.”

Last month a senior doctor told the Guardian that working in the camp had left her fearing a pandemic could break out in a population already suffering from untreated respiratory conditions.

Dr. Hana Pospisilova is a consultant cardiologist who regularly volunteers on Lesbos.

“I saw many people with respiratory problems and even though it’s cold, it’s winter, we are sending these people back to wet tents in an overcrowded camp. I am worried about a pandemic breaking out. They don’t have hot water, they have to wait three hours in the cold for food, they aren’t getting enough vitamins so many have bleeding gums.

“If you read about Spanish flu it was exactly like this that it began to spread, in overcrowded facilities where people had a viral infection that became a bacterial infection that killed them.”

The reduction in already very basic services in the camp takes a toll on everyone, but serves to make the most vulnerable even more so. Anis Nouri, 30, originally from Afghanistan, is eight months pregnant. Sitting on the doorstep of her makeshift hut in the olive grove she explained how the disruption to last week’s services contributed to the uncertainty of her life here.

“Last week there wasn’t a lot of food handouts and so we just cooked chickpeas,” she said, but added that regardless of how many NGOs are in the camp, she constantly feels unsafe. “If I need to go to the toilet in the day I try and go alone but I often need the toilet and in the night I have to take my husband, as I’m scared to otherwise.”

Tensions on the island remain and the humanitarian community continues to be a target, now with the added concern that fears about COVID-19 will add to distrust and anger at the refugee and NGO community.

Even without the added threat of COVID-19, for the thousands in Moria the future is more uncertain and insecure than ever. (Source: The Guardian)