In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 1.3 million people in Iraq are still displaced and living in overcrowded and precarious shelters with unhygienic conditions. Internally displaced people (IDPs) are amongst the most vulnerable facing the threat of COVID-19, says Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
“Internally displaced people in Iraq have been suffering for years, living in precarious and often cramped formal and informal camps settings,” said Gul Badshah, MSF Head of Mission in Iraq. “There have been the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in a few IDP camps in Iraq, including in Laylan camp where we work.”
“While there have been no other confirmed cases for now, we are still worried about the impact COVID-19 will have on the most vulnerable people inside the camps, especially given the difficulties for people to be able to apply self-protection measures,” Badshah said.
It’s critical that people in the camps have access to COVID-19 and regular non-COVID-related healthcare services.Gul Badshah, MSF Head of Mission in Iraq
To respond to the emergence of people with the new coronavirus in Laylan camp, in Kirkuk governorate in the country’s north, MSF is mobilising a 20-bed isolation and treatment facility. We are also continuing to implement triage measures for any suspected COVID-19 patients, as well as raising awareness about prevention measures.
However, due to the cramped and unhygienic conditions in the camps, it is almost impossible for people to implement personal protection measures like physical distancing or isolation of suspect cases.
“In the camps where MSF provides medical care, families are congested inside single tents and have scarce access to adequate hygiene facilities,” said Tetyana Pylypenko, MSF’s Medical Coordinator in Iraq. “Mixing with other camp residents is an unavoidable daily task, and with the insufficient amount of aid given, people have no choice but to go out and seek any work to support their families, despite knowing the increased risk of infection.”
“My name is Ibrahim. I am 60 years old and am living with a disability. I’m from the town of Abbasi in Hawija but have been displaced since the Islamic State group attacked the town in 2017. I moved first to Haj Ali camp and then later to Laylan camp.
I’ve been living in Laylan camp for about a year. I have several children, some of them are married. There are five of us living in one tent. There is one shared bathroom for every four tents.
I’m suffering from high blood pressure and my current wife has kidney disease. Last year our family lost a five-month-old baby because of the cold. After that, blankets and kerosene for heating were distributed.
Two of my sons work so we can eat. They work outside of the camp as daily workers. One of them is married and has children of his own. With the curfew (imposed for the COVID-19 pandemic), my sons are not able to find work. But we manage, we get some onions and tomatoes from here and there.
Cleanliness in the camp depends on each families’ cleaning habits. A month ago, we were given bars of soap but they’re not for cleaning toilets. For that we get no cleaning liquids. The amount of soap is not enough for my big family, so I cannot bathe.
We don’t fear coronavirus. If it happens, it’s our fate and everybody has his own time. We know there are ways for protection, like wearing masks and staying away from crowds. We got a donation of one mask for each person a month ago. We wore for half a day and then tossed it.
If one of us gets COVID-19, we will call the hospital. I hear that symptoms include fever and body shaking.
We got a two-month supply of medications for our chronic diseases from MSF, so we’re ok on this side.
Our main problem is food. We feel forgotten. The water available for drinking here is contains salts, and we have to boil it and then cool it and drink it.”
In Laylan camp in Kirkuk governorate, MSF provides care for non-communicable diseases, mental health consultations and sexual reproductive healthcare services. In addition to the unsanitary conditions in which many people face in camps, those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and heart and kidney diseases are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and need continuous care or risk life-threatening consequences.
“It’s critical that people in the camps have access to COVID-19 and regular non-COVID-related healthcare services,” said Badshah. “For MSF to continue to implement our programming across the country, and to adequately respond to all the health needs of people at this time, access and movement has to remain open.”
As Iraq witnesses increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, in April MSF started to support Iraqi health authorities in tackling COVID-19, by shifting the activities in our centre for post-operative care in Mosul for isolation and treatment of COVID-19 cases, and supporting the main facility for referral of COVID-19 patients in the region.
In Baghdad, MSF has started supporting specialised care in the intensive care unit, as well as infection prevention and control inside one of the Ministry of Health COVID-19 treatment hospitals. We have also supported local health facilities in Erbil and in the capital, Baghdad, by providing technical support, logistic support and training for staff on infection prevention and control while still maintaining most of our regular medical projects open across the country.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working in Iraq since 1991. With more than 1,500 staff in its projects countrywide, MSF provides free, high quality healthcare for all people regardless of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.
MSF delivers primary and secondary healthcare, services for expectant and new mothers, treatment for chronic diseases, surgery and rehabilitation for war-wounded, mental health support and health education activities. We currently work in the governorates of Baghdad, Nineveh, Diyala and Kirkuk. We have also supported local health facilities in the southern provinces of Najaf and Dhi Qar in recent months with preparedness for mass casualty incidents. In 2019, MSF provided over 45,000 consultations for patients across Iraq for those suffering from chronic diseases, as well as over 34,000 consultations for maternity and reproductive health.