The impact that coronavirus has had on people over the last months cannot be measured only by the number of positive cases. Just think about the economic effects that millions of families are going to tackle, or at the various reports showing an increase in domestic violence during the quarantine period. Furthermore, it is important to reflect on the high amount of psychological effects caused by the lockdown, particularly for those who found themselves isolated.
If all this can be true as a general assumption, it’s even more crucial, for those who were already living in a marginal condition and saw their vulnerability increase. Lebanon is a bitter example of this situation, as it confirmed by study on the consequences of the pandemic conducted by our protection team among the communities of Syrian refugees that INTERSOS is supporting.
“While many people are still afraid of contracting the virus, we witness rising concerns about the side effects of the health emergency and their tangible impact on the living conditions of refugee families,” says Patricia Arou, Protection Coordinator of INTERSOS in Lebanon. “People are worried by reduced household income and difficulty in accessing to primary goods and services, including food purchases.”
In Lebanon, the effects of the pandemic and the lockdown combine with those of a deep economic-financial crisis (boosted by out of control public debt – with the government declaring default for the first time in his history during March – collapse of the banking system, skyrocketing inflation, and consequent devaluation of the currency). This situation is determining heavy repercussions on job levels, business and on the purchasing power of families. The rising cost of living in the country will threaten the food security of millions.
“Tensions between host communities and refugees have increased in recent months due to the combined effect of the economic crisis and quarantine – points out Patricia Arou – In the Bekaa Valley some municipalities have literally isolated some ITS (the informal temporary settlements where hundreds of thousands of Syrians still live) and limited travel, and with them access to essential services, such as basic health services”.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the crippling impact of lockdown measures, 73 per cent of Syrian refugees were already living under the poverty line and were expressing concern over the increase in prices, household debt, the loss or inability to access livelihood opportunities, the risk of eviction as a result of their inability to pay rent, and fear of arrest and deportation.
In the third monitoring carried out by our protection team, between the ninth and tenth week since the start of the lockdown, 75% of the refugees interviewed said they had difficulties buying food due to lack of money, 77% said they were unable or had increasing difficulties in paying their rent, 72% suffered from limited freedom of movement (the extension of the curfew, in some cases limited to Syrian refugees only, is a decision recorded by 94% of people interviewed in the first 6 weeks and 81% between week 9 and 10), 51% said they had lost their jobs or other livelihood 23% said they could procure essentials medicines. These figures have been basically constant, or increasing, since the beginning of the pandemic.
Troubles in accessing food (87%), soap and other hygiene items (53%), medicines (43%) are also the main difficulties encountered by those living in more vulnerable conditions: the elderly, the disabled and people with medical conditions.
Women face the increased burden of family care: more housework (85%) combined with finding small jobs to supplement family income (19%) and support in children’s education (15%), resulting in a widespread increase in feelings of tiredness, anxiety and stress.
10% of respondents report an increase in psychological problems, with a prevalence of moderate symptoms (anxiety, lack of appetite, insomnia) but also with a strong increase in aggressiveness, anger and family tensions.
Individual responses to needs often lead to new vulnerabilities. 69% of households have contracted new debts, 64% have reduced food consumption, 19% have stopped necessary medical treatment, including the purchase of medicines. Data reflected in requests for support to humanitarian organisations: 40% ask for assistance to buy food, 41% ask for help to pay the rent.
Access to medical care is a particular case. With the reopening of the border with Syria, many refugees had begun to cross the border again to face inaccessible medical care in Lebanon due to the costs of the private health system. The closure of the borders in the aftermath of the pandemic meant that many people had to stop receiving such treatments.
Within this framework, INTERSOS continues to guarantee that cases in need of ongoing assistance are taken care of, including those identified through telephone interviews, distribution of cash assistance to the most vulnerable families and hygiene kits.
“With the coronavirus awareness activities, we have managed to reach around 60,000 people – concludes Patricia Arou – taking into charge 1400 people with cash assistance and case management. We are also part of the Emergency Response Team for the coronavirus emergency. Even in this crisis, INTERSOS is on the frontline”.