COVID19News

Swift response prevented massive Covid-19 infections in refugee camps: UNHCR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said it was fortunate not to record massive Covid-19 infections in refugee settlement areas, as humanitarian agencies moved fast to implement prevention measures.

UNHCR is mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.

In a recent briefing with Sub-Saharan journalists on the effects of Covid-19 on refugees, UNHCR Senior External Engagement Coordinator for the West and Centra Africa Burea, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, said once Covid-19 was declared as a pandemic, the agency panicked as they deal with millions of people who are very fragile.

“The refugees are in parts of the world where health systems are poor and we were wondering what will happen if we were to have massive infections,” she said.

“In a humanitarian setting such as ours, we work on protecting people, protecting their rights and also assisting them to enforce those rights, which is our priority during the pandemic.”

Kaba said the first move UNHCR did against curbing Covid-19 was to pool together human agencies and come up with a humanitarian response plan that listed their requirements to donors.

“Initially we started in March last year with a budget of $2 billion, later we revised it upwards and we were trying to make sure we prevent massive infections in refugee hosting areas, areas where people were displaced and in areas where it was not their place of origin,” said the UNHCR official. 

She highlighted that there was a huge risk of stigma as already the presence of refugees was heavy on populations hosting them.

“The moment you have thousands of people moving into a village or city what happens is you stretch the resources, be it water or education facilities. The need for different services are bigger than what was available so we started racing against time finding ways to reinforce the government’s own structures,” Kaba said.

She added that as it was essential for the humanitarian agencies to be coherent as their objective was to strengthen government’s health and education structures, as they would not only benefit the forcefully displaced but local populations receiving them too.

“We were lucky that we didn’t see those massive infections but I think this has a lot to do with the way we responded most quickly. We had to prioritise… and started focusing on water, sanitation,  health obviously and all prevention measures because we were in settings where you can’t talk about social distancing,” said the UNHCR official.  

“Social distancing is nice when you are at home and have enough means to make sure there is space for everyone in the family, which is not a case where we work.  We begin to redirect all of our resources – staffing , logistics, supplies to make sure there were isolation facilities, treatment facilities  and most of all make sure countries had testing facilities.”

Kaba said this measures were completed by health interventions such as having ambulances and the means to disinfect centres, making sure that health structures were able to dispose of contaminated supplies or clothing from those who were infected.

“This allowed us to take care of the health part,” she said but noted the most difficult they faced in the fight against Covid-19 is working with communities.

“There are some people who have doubts whether Covid-19 is real or not and it’s not easy to work with communities. People have different sets of beliefs, priorities, they are hungry and us coming in telling them about something that might occur in the future when their lives is so miserable was quite challenging.”

The UNHCR official said the agency adopted lessons from what happened previously with Ebola.

“Most of us were in the Ebola response in 2014, 2015 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leonne and realised that we can’t treat this as a medical problem. We started involving communities so that they become agents that would respond and tell people to observe certain measures, even if they can’t social distance all the times,” she said.

“We needed to make sure that once we put water stations, we provided people with soap, make sure they will use the water to clean their hands.”

Kaba said despite the projections that Africa could face millions of deaths once the pandemic reached the continent, humanitarian agencies were fortunate for the quick responses and prevention measures.

“Among the refugees, some started sowing masks and some are actually making a living of that. They started making sanitation gels in Niger, Burkina Faso and in some of the difficult places where you have attack upon attack -where people move due to insecurity. So still , refugees were able to be part of the response and also making sure that others complied with prevention measures and protect themselves. We also made use of mobile clinics, which educated people about Covid-19 and what to do when infected,” summed the UNHCR official.

In a recent briefing with Sub-Saharan journalists on effects of Covid-19 to refugees, UNHCR Senior External Engagement Coordinator for the West and Centra Africa Burea, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, said once Covid-19 was declared as a pandemic, the agency panicked as they deal with millions of people who are very fragile.

“The refugees are in parts of the world where health systems is poor and we were wondering what will happen if we were to have massive infections,” she said.

“In a humanitarian setting such as ours, we work on protecting people, protecting their rights and also assisting them to enforce those rights, which is our priority during the pandemic.”

Kaba said the first move UNHCR did against curbing Covid-19 was to pool together human agencies and come up with a humanitarian response plan that listed their requirements to donors.

“Initially we started in March last year with a budget of $2 billion, later we revised it upwards and we were trying to make sure we prevent massive infections in refugee hosting areas, areas where people were displaced and in areas where it was not their place of origin,” said the UNHCR official. 

She highlighted that there was a huge risk of stigma as already the presence of refugees was heavy on populations hosting them.

“The moment you have thousands of people moving into a village or city what happens is you stretch the resources, be it water or education facilities. The need for different services are bigger than what was available so we started racing against time finding ways to reinforce the government’s own structures,” Kaba said.

She added that as it was essential for the humanitarian agencies to be coherent as their objective was to strengthen government’s health and education structures, as they would not only benefit the forcefully displaced but local populations receiving them too.

“We were lucky that we didn’t see those massive infections but I think this has a lot to do with the way we responded most quickly. We had to prioritise… and started focusing on water, sanitation,  health obviously and all prevention measures because we were in settings where you can’t talk about social distancing,” said the UNHCR official.  

“Social distancing is nice when you are at home and have enough means to make sure there is space for everyone in the family, which is not a case where we work.  We begin to redirect all of our resources – staffing , logistics, supplies to make sure there were isolation facilities, treatment facilities  and most of all make sure countries had testing facilities.”

Kaba said this measures were completed by health interventions such as having ambulances and the means to disinfect centres, making sure that health structures were able to dispose of contaminated supplies or clothing from those who were infected.

“This allowed us to take care of the health part,” she said but noted the most difficult they faced in the fight against Covid-19 is working with communities.

“There are some people who have doubts whether Covid-19 is real or not and it’s not easy to work with communities. People have different sets of beliefs, priorities, they are hungry and us coming in telling them about something that might occur in the future when their lives is so miserable was quite challenging.”

The UNHCR official said the agency adopted lessons from what happened previously with Ebola.

“Most of us were in the Ebola response in 2014, 2015 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leonne and realised that we can’t treat this as a medical problem. We started involving communities so that they become agents that would respond and tell people to observe certain measures, even if they can’t social distance all the times,” she said.

“We needed to make sure that once we put water stations, we provided people with soap, make sure they will use the water to clean their hands.”

Kaba said despite the projections that Africa could face millions of deaths once the pandemic reached the continent, humanitarian agencies were fortunate for the quick responses and prevention measures.

“Among the refugees, some started sowing masks and some are actually making a living of that. They started making sanitation gels in Niger, Burkina Faso and in some of the difficult places where you have attack upon attack -where people move due to insecurity. So still , refugees were able to be part of the response and also making sure that others complied with prevention measures and protect themselves. We also made use of mobile clinics, which educated people about Covid-19 and what to do when infected,” summed the UNHCR official.

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