It’s that bad here, it just gets worse outside our borders.
In shanty towns and refugee camps throughout the developing world, people are confined. Without space to protect themselves, without health care to heal themselves, they are powerless to protect themselves.
For all our panic at home, Canadians can at least do something – by doing nothing but living at home, working virtually and shopping rarely. Many of us have the personal power to protect ourselves with social distance, while our government has the purchasing power to refill masks and ventilators while reviving our social safety net.
But in most of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there will never be enough ventilators, enough drugs, enough space for social distance or enough resources for social assistance. Refugees who have no place to go can only take shelter in overcrowded camps that have become human incubators COVID-19.
Even in the best of times, poor workers and refugees do not have access to basic health care and welfare. While we are grappling with the dilemma of short-term economic pain for long-term social benefits, they face the dual danger of unprotected impoverishment.
In many countries, the danger is not only medical but also political. This pandemic will test us all, but it might also make it the hardest people to fight each other.
While we reconcile ourselves with social distance, social disturbance is a risk everywhere – from simple disobedience to direct looting or riots. This hasn’t happened yet, but these are early days – especially in developing countries, where the curve of the new corona virus hasn’t come out of the charts.
Industrial countries like Italy and Spain have reached their limits without losing their balance. Developing countries like Iran have been devastated without reaching their peak; India is on the verge of trying desperately to force closure for the poorest of the poor – hundreds of millions of daily laborers who are captured without basic transportation or access to food and medicine.
What seemed frightening in big cities seemed even more depressing in remote refugee camps. At present, tens of millions of refugees around the world basically do not have citizenship, cannot depend on their governments to protect them, or rely on too many aid agencies to reach them (and foreign aid workers may only infect them)
For a decade abroad as a foreign correspondent I covered the stories of refugees and internally displaced people from Afghanistan to Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Philippines, Sudan. This is a scene that is hard to see at any time, but a more difficult story to tell when people suffer from refugee fatigue and just stop listening.
Now, in the worst of times, refugee camps are very vulnerable, a vector for the corona virus in all respects. Millions of refugees from the old Middle East conflict and the recent Syrian civil war languished in the corners of Greece and Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
Think that can be understood panic at the construction site in Canada, where workers step down because they work hard at close range without proper toilets or cleaners. Now imagine a refugee camp where entire families, from parents to infants, living together together cannot rely on food supplies, social distance, proper sanitation, primary health care, or sophisticated emergency care for COVID-19 that is difficult to understand.
They are under the rule of a global pandemic who knows no bounds while increasing barriers to entry at each border. Many countries that can barely overcome the novel coronavirus also host millions of refugees in camps adjacent to the conflict zone.
They can barely look after their own citizens. Now they lock in every non-citizen, many of whom have been closed from their subsistence jobs with economic closures.
But some of the most vulnerable countries have so far maintained social ties, even when national boundaries are getting tighter around them. In Afghanistan, landlords forgive rent for difficult tenants; in Pakistan, refugees are still given protection even though the country is running out of money from foreign donors.
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Like all countries, Canada has turned inward complaining of being exiled. People were very disappointed with President Donald Trump’s initial order to hold the mask delivery and protective equipment, but Ottawa was strongly criticized for allowing similar humanitarian deliveries to China when needed last February (with our role reversed, China later retaliated and made us whole, while the US was still holding back).
Just as all politics is local, the impact of the global pandemic is also local. But the dividing line between rich and poor, which is so deep inside the country, is even more dangerous abroad.
It’s uncomfortable to know that other people suffer more than us with little ability to maneuver. This is a reminder to continue to protect ourselves from infection, thereby protecting our fellow citizens from contagion, that we might also be in a position to help those who are outside our borders when a pandemic hits the home.
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