As wealthy countries like the United States and Italy struggle with mass outbreaks of the coronavirus, international health experts and aid workers are increasingly worried that the virus could ravage the world’s most vulnerable people: the tens of millions forced from their homes by violent conflict. Refugee camps across Africa, the Middle East and Asia are packed with traumatized and undernourished people with limited access to health care and basic sanitation, perfect breeding grounds for contagion. “We are preparing for the worst,” said Avril Benoit, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders in the United States, which has deployed teams to work with refugees around the world. In crowded, poor places like Gaza or the urban slums of Indonesia and India, which began the world’s largest lockdown in response to the virus this week, keeping six feet away from everyone else is difficult. “The one thing that everyone is stressing in combating the coronavirus is to create social distance but that is precisely what is impossible for refugees,” said Deepmala Mahla, the regional director for Asia for CARE, the humanitarian aid agency. In Bangladesh, where about 860,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to escape persecution in Myanmar, the authorities fear that the coming rainy season will cause sewage to overflow into flimsy shelters and possibly spread the coronavirus. “We are trying to correct the misinterpretations, but the lack of mobile networks makes it very difficult to get out the right messages about health and hygiene,” said Marie Sophie Pettersson, a program specialist for United Nations Women, a gender equality agency, in the Rohingya camps. Aid agencies that have contended with donor fatigue at a time when the number of displaced people is at a record high are worried that health and economic crises in the West will mean less money for refugees. “As world leaders brace for the worst within their borders, they must not abandon those living outside them,” Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement. In Lebanon, where most Syrian refugees live in cities, Nisrine Muhra, 35, said her son and daughter, 10 and 13, used to sell tissues on the street in Beirut, but have been forced to stay home.
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