Concerns Rise as 2nd Wave of Coronavirus Expected in Palestinian Refugee Camps

Published July 30th, 2020 - 07:18 GMT
A member of the Syrian relief group Violet Organization disinfects tents at a camp for displaced people north of Idlib, Syria, on March 21. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
A member of the Syrian relief group Violet Organization disinfects tents at a camp for displaced people north of Idlib, Syria, on March 21. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

A second wave of the new coronavirus infections sweeping the Israeli-occupied West Bank is raising concerns over a surge in overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps where social distancing is next to impossible.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, the Palestinian Authority quickly imposed a lockdown as it sought to contain infections. However, as the Israeli government and later the PA eased restrictions in late April and May, the number of infections rose again, exacerbated by breaches of limits on public assembly and movement.

One major driver has been Palestinian workers going to and from jobs in neighboring Israel, according to the PA, AFP reported.

The Palestinian health ministry's Tuesday update logged more than 10,860 confirmed cases of infection since the start of the pandemic, including more than 75 deaths. That compares with an accumulated total of less than 2,700 infections and seven deaths as recently as July 1.

The United Nations defines about five million Palestinians as having refugee status.

They are the survivors and descendants of the more than 700,000 who were expelled or fled their land over a few months in 1948 when Israel was founded.

More than 1.5 million of them live in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.


They are assisted by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides them with medical aid and manages schools.

In Al-Amari camp, near Ramallah in the West Bank, an estimated 8,000 people live packed into less than one square kilometre.

UNRWA describes the camp as suffering "significant overcrowding issues."

"There is neither room to impose distancing nor space to carry out quarantines", said Taha Al-Bess, an official on the camp's residents' committee.

At the entrance to Al-Amari camp the road is about six metres wide but quickly narrows inside the camp, with alleys no wider than half that.

"The streets are narrow, the buildings are very close to each other, to talk about distancing is an illusion," Al-Bess said.

Throughout the West Bank, occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, around 190,000 Palestinian refugees live in 19 camps.

Few cases of sickness and no deaths have so far been recorded in Al-Amari, but the camp committee is monitoring developments in the other camps with concern.

In Jalazoun, also near Ramallah, more than 200 cases have been recorded in recent weeks and two deaths, out of 8,000 refugees.

In Al-Fawar camp near Hebron in the southern West Bank, the data is similar.

"It is impossible to implement distancing and prevent contact between the sick and other residents," said Nael Nakhleh, a member of an emergency committee set up in Jalazoun to tackle the resurgence of contamination.

A debate has arisen over who is responsible for managing the health emergency in the camps: the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA?

For Ahmed Hanoun, in charge of refugee affairs at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the answer is the UN agency.

"We are trying to work with them," he told AFP, saying he was "seriously concerned" by the virus outbreaks in the camps.

In UNRWA too, there is deep concern, particularly as the pandemic arrived at an already challenging time. It has increased calls for donations and emergency aid from its other donors.

In Al-Amari, the residents have decided to take matters into their own hands and stand at the camp's entrance to take the temperature of everyone entering.

This article has been adapted from its original source.


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