As the second wave of COVID-19 hit the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) which seemed to handle the initial coronavirus response even better than Israel now seems to have lost control of the escalating hunger and poverty. The tough restrictions it imposed in response to the second wave have in turn created a seemingly bigger issue resulting in mass unemployment for its citizens with many now reliant on food assistance and without access to any form of financial aid. 95 percent of the more than 28,000 people who make their living from tourism in the West Bank and Jerusalem are currently unemployed. It is reported that they survive on small portions of water, rice, bread and vegetables, however the situation is dire for everyone in the area and people now fear hunger more than contracting the virus. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Chief, Philippe Lazzarini says ‘There is despair and hopelessness’ when discussing the plight of those in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Gaza who are now suffering a bottomless pit of desperation because of the Pandemic. ‘In Gaza, people are going through the garbage….more people are fighting to provide one or two meals a day to their families.’
AID CUTS TO THE REGION HAD ALREADY INTENSIFIED THE SUFFERING OF THE PEOPLE BEFORE THE PANDEMIC
In 2018 the United States cancelled more than 200m in aid for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West bank, with their ambassador branding Donald Trump and his government as ‘anti peace.’ The funding which had been used for programs in those areas ‘will now address high priority projects elsewhere’ an official said at the time. This move was seen by many as an endangerment to the lives of people in Gaza, where Hamas (A Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist, militant and nationalist organisation) exerts control of citizens. However, other global donors came forth to fill the gap in the shortfall that the US exodus had left, but now the Pandemic has put UNRWA under increasing pressure to deliver even more financial aid to the area. ‘There is more pressure on the organisation to deliver more, but at the same time, the environment of our donors is more complicated because they have all been impacted economically by Covid.’ Lazzarini said. The additional menace of the virus tearing through the refugee camps across the Middle East is also a threat to suppressing UNRWAs urgent work there. The area is home to a huge amount of the 5.6 million Palestinians currently supported by UNRWA.
THE SITUATION FOR SYRIAN REFUGEES IN LEBANON IS DEPLORABLE
The crisis in Syria has been one of the most formidable and demanding emergencies ever faced. The vast majority of the 540,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) are unable to meet their basic needs. The majority of PRS due to the ongoing effects of the coronavirus lost their sources of income, with rental prices and basic amenities soaring. The epidemic of undernourishment and extreme poverty is widespread and escalating daily. Children have been forced to drop out of school and join armed groups to help feed their starving families. Desperate beggars in the street that were always there have now exponentially increased. Lots of refugees live in squalid conditions, stacked in makeshift shelters together. Erected on the ground they reside in a muddy swamp that is cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer. In this environment there is no method to impose social distancing to inhibit the spread of the Coronavirus. The virus however is not the main survival threat that these people face or fear. Lebanon’s already disastrous economy has only intensified due to the imposed nationwide coronavirus lockdowns. The country is essentially bankrupt and its currency the Lebanese pound virtually worthless. So far there have been no coronavirus infections documented in any of Lebanon’s Syrian Refugee camps. Whether this is a true indication of the numbers can not be verified but it can be said that if a serious breakout did occur it would be impossible to contain due to the close living confines the majority of refugees endure. According to John Hopkins University in the U.S. a total of 750 coronavirus infections in Lebanon have been reported with 25 deaths, again this is hard to confirm. Syrians who did fall sick with coronavirus symptoms would also be remiss to seek medical treatment for fear of facing legal difficulties if they no longer held valid residency permits or other necessary government documents. This is a well founded deterrent as in 2019 the Lebanese government forcibly deported several hundred Syrians for not being in possession of the correct paperwork. A possible reason for the low numbers of purported coronavirus infections could be this very real fear of retribution. Most would think extremely hard between the choice of deportation and health and the consequences that seeking medical attention could unleash on themselves and their families.
NO QUICK SOLUTIONS TO THE DIRE HUMANITARIAN THREAT
In April, the World Bank released US40 million in Emergency aid to assist Lebanon with the coronavirus outbreak. This was assigned to help the Government of Lebanon (GOL) in three main areas, being surveillance and case detection, case management and protection of health workers and multi sectoral response to support multi sectoral activities. However this emergency band aid along with other monetary support is obviously well short of the assistance these areas whose many citizens are going hungry and whose refugees are facing starvation require. The longer the Pandemic continues so will the suffering of the people, and long after the Pandemic is over the after effects of its devastation on an already desperate situation will linger for those that have already lost everything.