Iran’s rapidly expanding coronavirus outbreak threatens not only Iranians but also a uniquely vulnerable population—the Middle East’s millions of refugees.
By early March Iran’s coronavirus death toll was the second highest outside China. A surge in cases across the Middle East—including Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Gulf states—traces back to Iran. Neighboring states quickly moved to close borders and cut off travel to the country, while aid workers turned their attention to protecting the region’s victims of war and displacement.
At least 12 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) live between Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey—countries with ties to Iran via shared borders, military alliances, common religious observances, and frequent travel. Iran itself hosts nearly 1 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan.
Within the last six months, new fighting between Turkey and Syrian forces has forced more than 1 million from their homes. Of 900,000 people displaced since December due to fighting in Idlib, more than half are children. The border with Turkey has been closed to them, and with the departure of most large relief groups, organized help is lacking.
Subzero temperatures and snow this winter made a difficult situation worse. Skeleton aid crews worked with locals to secure wind-whipped, non-winterized tents. They delivered food staples to families without cookstoves or heat, and children in flip-flops trudged through snow. At least seven children died due to the cold. Another 35 children, at least, died in airstrikes and ground attacks.
“We took in some sleeping bags and supplies,” reported Steve Gumaer, president of Michigan-based Partners Relief and Development, “but everything in this crisis feels like putting a Band-Aid on a jugular vein.”
Enter COVID-19, the respiratory disease that the novel coronavirus causes.
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