In mid-February, the United Nations issued a statement calling for the immediate evacuation of the Moria refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Initially designed to hold fewer than 3,000 people, the camp’s population had increased from 5,000 last July to roughly 20,000. With ships bringing new arrivals every day, medical experts feared a looming public health crisis. Malnutrition was widespread, hygiene impossible to maintain and health care workers completely overwhelmed, leading many residents to die of treatable conditions. A regional government official called Moria “a powder keg ready to explode,” and a volunteer doctor told The Guardian that the overcrowding resembled the conditions that led to the rapid spread of the Spanish flu in 1918.
Yet surprisingly, the U.N.’s appeal and much of the media coverage around it did not reference the COVID-19 outbreak, even though the WHO had already deemed the crisis a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” By the time the U.N. issued its call for Moria to be evacuated on Feb. 11, the novel coronavirus had already claimed more than 1,000 lives in China and had spread to countries across Asia, Europe and North America. At a press briefing that same day, the director-general of the World Health Organization warned that without immediate action, “we could have far more cases—and far higher costs—on our hands.”
The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Lesbos last week, prompting necessary but much-delayed statements of concern from nongovernmental organizations about what the outbreak could mean for Moria’s residents and other displaced populations. And while aid agencies are slowly realizing the threat that this pandemic poses to the world’s 25.9 million refugees, there is still no organized global response to protect them.