Iraq: Displaced people extremely vulnerable to COVID-19

60-year-old Ibrahim and his family have been living in Laylan camp for about a year now. "With the curfew [imposed after the coronavirus pandemic), my sons are not able to find work," Ibrahim says.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF
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BAGHDAD/AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK, July 13, 2020—Two years since the end of the war with the Islamic State group, more than 1.3 million people in Iraq are still displaced from their homes and are now extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 due to overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today.               

"Internally displaced people in Iraq have been suffering for years, living in precarious and often cramped formal and informal camps," said Gul Badshah, MSF head of mission in Iraq. "There have been the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in a few internal displacement camps in Iraq, including where MSF works in Laylan camp near Kirkuk. While there have not been more confirmed cases for now, we are still worried about the impact COVID-19 will have on the most vulnerable people inside the camps, especially given the difficulty for people take self-protective measures."

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MSF is responding to the emergence of a COVID-19 case in Laylan camp by setting up a 20-bed isolation and treatment facility. MSF is also implementing triage for COVID-19 at MSF's clinic in Laylan and raising awareness about prevention measures. However, due to the cramped and unhygienic conditions in the camps, it is almost impossible for people to take measures such as physical distancing and the isolation of suspect cases.

"In the camps where MSF provides medical care, families are congested inside single tents and have scarce access to adequate hygiene facilities," said Tetyana Pylypenko, MSF medical coordinator in Iraq. "Mixing with other camp residents is an unavoidable daily task, and without enough aid, people have no choice but to go out and seek any work to support their families, despite knowing the increased risk of infection."

In Laylan camp in Kirkuk governorate, MSF provides care for patients with noncommunicable diseases, mental health consultations, and sexual and reproductive health care services. People with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart and kidney diseases are particularly vulnerable to the virus and need continuous care, or they risk life-threatening consequences.

"It's critical that people in the camps have access to care for COVID-19 and to regular health services," added Badshah.  "For MSF to continue to work across the country and adequately respond to the health needs, access and movement have to remain open."

In April, MSF started to support Iraqi health authorities in tackling COVID-19, shifting activities in its center for postoperative care in Mosul to isolate and treat people with COVID-19, and supporting the main facility for referral of COVID-19 patients in the region. In Baghdad, MSF has started supporting specialized intensive care, as well as infection prevention and control inside one of the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 treatment hospitals. MSF has also supported local health facilities in Erbil and Baghdad by providing technical and logistical support and staff training on infection prevention and control, while maintaining most of MSF's regular medical projects across the country.

MSF has been working in Iraq since 1991. With more than 1,500 staff in the country, MSF provides free, high-quality health care to people regardless of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation.

MSF delivers primary and secondary health care, services for expectant and new mothers, treatment for chronic diseases, surgery and rehabilitation for war-wounded patients, mental health support, and health education activities. MSF currently works in the governorates of Baghdad, Nineveh, Diyala, and Kirkuk. MSF has also supported local health facilities in the southern provinces of Najaf and Dhi Qar in recent months with preparedness for mass casualty incidents. In 2019, MSF provided more than 45,000 consultations for patients across Iraq for chronic diseases, as well as more than 34,000 consultations for maternal and reproductive health.

Photos: Life in Laylan camp during COVID-19

Laylan Camp: Kirkuk, Iraq
Children play in Laylan Camp, near Kirkuk, Iraq. In response to the first confirmed cases of COVID-19, MSF has set up a 20-bed isolation and treatment facility.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF
Laylan Camp: Kirkuk, Iraq
An MSF community health educator gives an education session for patients waiting in MSF’s camp clinic.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF
Hameed Hilal: MSF health promoter in Laylan 1 camp
“With the pandemic, living in the camp has become more stressful than before for most of the residents,” says MSF health promoter Hameed Hilal.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF
Laylan Camp: Kirkuk, Iraq
A tent at Laylan camp sleeps five people with every four tents sharing a joint bathroom. This degree of proximity makes protections against COVID-19, like social distancing and isolation, difficult to implement.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF
Laylan Camp: Kirkuk, Iraq
An MSF community health educator walks through the camp after giving a session on COVID-19 via megaphone.
Iraq 2020 © Tetyana Pylypenko/MSF