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The places where handwashing is a privilege

The unbearable thought of an outbreak in Lesbos, where 20,000 people live in space for 3,000, or in Mozambique, where IsraAID brings buckets and soap to those who do not have them

How do we get through this crisis? It’s the question on everyone’s lips. Here in Israel, millions of people have drastically changed our behavior over the past few weeks to help contain the spread of COVID-19. By now, we’re used to hearing – and following – all the key messages. Stay inside. Keep at least two meters away from anyone else. Wash. Your. Hands.

But what happens in places where these important public health instructions aren’t just a shift in lifestyle, they’re basically impossible? That is the reality for many of the world’s most vulnerable communities today – communities that we at IsraAID, Israel’s leading non-governmental humanitarian aid agency, are supporting through this crisis.

In Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya, home to more than 190,000 refugees who have fled conflict across the region, water is in short supply. IsraAID runs three safe spaces in the camp offering daily activities, education and – crucially – safe water for children. The new regulations brought in to help control the spread of the virus have forced our team to temporarily suspend these activities. But without these safe spaces, many children in the camp will be at greater risk. Add to that severe shortages of medical facilities and personnel and it’s clear that a coronavirus outbreak in Kakuma could be devastating.

Children using the water facilities at one of IsraAID’s safe spaces in Kakuma. Photo credit: Lior Sperandeo/IsraAID

Thousands of miles north of Kakuma, the Greek island of Lesbos is one of the main entry points to Europe for refugees fleeing conflict and political persecution in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. Many of them end up in Moria Refugee Camp. Plenty has been written about Moria – google it and you’ll see – which has become infamous thanks to its unsafe conditions.

More than 20,000 people have been pushed into a camp designed for just over 3,000. The day-to-day potential for harm has now been coupled with the risks of a global pandemic, and fears about a potential outbreak in Moria have risen as cases of COVID-19 have been reported on the island. I’ve been to Lesbos more than 20 times since the refugee crisis exploded in 2015 and I can’t even imagine what an outbreak in Moria would look like. But how are families and individuals expected to socially distance when the camp has nearly seven times the number of people it was built for? When facilities and services that were already stretched to breaking point are now contending with a country on near-total lockdown? These are communities that have already been through so much, just to get to this point.

IsraAID has 14 active missions worldwide. Each of them is unique, responding to a specific crisis and partnering with communities with specific needs, vulnerabilities, socio-economic situations, and cultural contexts. When we launch a mission, we make a commitment to stay for as long as we are needed. The COVID-19 pandemic makes that even more crucial.

Members of IsraAID Mozambique’s team are bringing buckets and soap to the schools they work in

In order to meet these challenges head-on, our teams are coming up with creative solutions to keep programs running and contribute to a global effort to reduce the spread of the disease. In some places, like Greece, where most of the refugees we work with have access to smartphones, we are transitioning our classes and services online or providing activity ideas and homework for children. In Mozambique, where IsraAID’s team is training teachers who were affected by Cyclone Idai last year in psychological support, we are bringing buckets and soap to schools that do not have them. In Dominica, the small Caribbean nation that was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, we are working with organizations like the Red Cross to get vital health and hygiene information to the public as quickly as possible.

We will get through this thanks to a big, shared effort on the part of governments, businesses, NGOs, and communities. No one has all the answers, but if we first acknowledge that we’re all in this together and that everyone can play their part, then that is an important start. For IsraAID, this means doubling down on our commitment to the often-vulnerable communities we work with to help navigate a safe path through this crisis by providing public health information, distributing hygiene supplies, putting classes and trainings online where possible, and – yes – making sure people can wash their hands.

It won’t be easy, but then it never is.

You can support IsraAID’s relief work around the world by donating to IsraAID’s Emergency Response Fund.

About the Author
Yotam Polizer is the CEO of IsraAID – Israel’s biggest humanitarian NGO currently active in 18 countries including the recent disasters in Houston, Puerto Rico, Dominica, Mexico and California. Following the September 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, he led IsraAID’s humanitarian mission in Lesbos, Greece, to support Syrian refugees on the island and also established IsraAID Germany, which provides long-term support for Yazidi and Syrian refugees in Germany. During the last 10 years, Polizer has also built and led humanitarian aid programs in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in South Korea to support the reintegration of North Korean defectors. He has also led missions in Nepal following the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and in Sierra Leone for Ebola survivors, health workers, and affected communities. He has more than 10 years’ experience in education, humanitarian aid, and international development
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