COVID-19 IN THE CAMPS: The virus and lockdown is making already difficult lives of displaced families even worse.

Around midnight, Saleh started to moan as though he was in pain. His eldest son, Bashar, stood outside the family’s tent in the Mam Rashan camp, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk. He didn’t know what to do.

By Shehab Ahmed, in Dohuk

Bashar’s father is 55 and has a brain tumour; he was operated on several months ago in Iran. The operation was not particularly successful and since then, his father has lost his ability to move around unaided and to talk. It was clear to Bashar, who is 24, that his father’s health was deteriorating again and that he needed medical assistance.

“He gets worse every day,” Bashar laments. “We were going to go back to Iran to get help but the roads and borders closed because of the coronavirus. We have spent all the money we have trying to help him but he seems to be dying.”

The family of five made their way to the state hospital in Dohuk – it’s the only nearby clinic that could possibly help their father. But the hospital staff sent them away with medications, saying that Saleh couldn’t be admitted because of the pandemic.

The family have run out of options, Bashar says. Now all they can do is watch their father die.

Bashar’s family is not the only one to suffer because of the Covid-19 lockdown in Iraqi Kurdistan. Just as elsewhere in the world, the less privileged and less wealthy are suffering disproportionately from the disease, both in terms of health and the economy. The pandemic has been particularly hard on those families displaced from their homes and living in Iraqi camps.

Since March, the local authorities have imposed a variety of measures to try and stop the virus from spreading, closing all airports, roads between cities and commercial markets. There is also a strict curfew at night.

Most of the families living in these camps in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan come from the Sinjar valley area and were displaced as a result of the arrival of the extremist Islamic State group; around 400,000 residents fled their homes in 2014. Many of them have lost their jobs thanks to the lockdown, as they often work in the service industry and are paid daily, depending on what they do.

“I’m the only income earner for my family and I have young children,” explains Faysal Haider, 37, who lives in the Khanke camp in Dohuk. “I was working for a construction company on the outskirts of [nearby city] Erbil and earning between IQD20,000 and IQD25,000 [around US$20] every day. But for the past two months, I’ve had no work. How will I be able to support my family if things go on like this?”

Sabah Hassan, 25, is a university graduate but he hasn’t been able to find a job yet. So he lives with his sister, who works as a tailor, in the Mam Rashan camp; his family is also from Sinjar. “We used to depend on my sister for what she earned in the store,” he says. But since the lockdown, the small sewing shop has been closed. “Most of the displaced people here depend on jobs like this and if this goes on much longer, I don’t know how we will be able to survive.”

“Our lives just seem to go from crisis to crisis,” complains Hayat Amin, 44, and confined to a wheelchair. There are four children in Hayat’s family and the eldest daughter, who is 16, has been having counselling for trauma. But those offices are now closed. “There is no doubt that is impacting her condition,” Amin adds. “We can see it in the way she behaves with her sisters.”

“The measures taken by the authorities, including the curfew, are a double-edged sword,” agrees Mamou Farhan Othman, a lecturer in psychotherapy at the nearby University of Dohuk. “The decisions were necessary to control the spread of the virus and to protect the workers. But it is also true that people have had to stop work and are suffering.”

This suffering is not just physical and financial but also psychological. Othman says that a project is underway to help treat anybody in the camps who is particularly stressed, via mobile phones.

Additionally the camps are far from a healthy environment in a pandemic. The living quarters and tents are crowded and close to one another and the alleyways between the different areas are narrow. It hardly allows for social distancing. Should the virus begin to infect families in the camps it would be almost impossible to stop.

“Health services are almost non-existent inside the camps,” Fadel al-Qayrani, a human rights activist who works in the camps, tells Al Menassa. “They also lack equipment like disinfectant and protective gear.”

Residents have tried to wash the things they purchase or to leave them out in the sunlight in the hopes of killing any contaminants. “But the danger still exists and it will be a disaster if the virus gets inside the camps,” al-Qayrani warns.

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