© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

COVID-19 Reaches Lebanon's Overcrowded Palestinian Refugee Camps


When doctors in Lebanon diagnosed a coronavirus case this week, it wasn't the country's first. There are several hundred cases, but this one was in a Palestinian refugee camp. NPR's Alice Fordham explains why that's particularly worrying.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Maybe the first thing to say is that Palestinian camps in Lebanon aren't actually groups of tents, natural as it is to imagine that.

MAHMOUD ABDULLAH: I've heard this, by the way, from a lot of people. When you say a camp, they even think about camels.

FORDHAM: A camel, too, would be an unusual sight. That's Mahmoud Abdullah, who works with a charity called Anera, which is helping people in Wavel camp in the east of Lebanon.

ABDULLAH: It's like a small village but with a lot of buildings that are really close to each other, like wall to wall.

FORDHAM: Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon after Israel was created in 1948. There are now hundreds of thousands of them. Many live in places that are only camps in name but still crowded and poor. And it was in Wavel camp, home to about 2,000 people, where a woman sickened this month.

HUDA SAMRA: This lady had shown some symptoms. She was tested for COVID-19, and she was found positive.

FORDHAM: Huda Samra is with the U.N.'s agency that helps Palestinians. This is something she'd been fearing for weeks.

SAMRA: These are places where overcrowding is a big concern, and there are some streets where there is little ventilation. And families are large, and they live sometimes in one or two rooms. And all of this leads to a quick spread of any virus.

FORDHAM: But although Lebanon is in some ways a dysfunctional country, its response to the coronavirus has been remarkably nimble. After weeks of lockdown, there have only been 22 deaths in a population of 5 million. With this diagnosis, authorities swung into action.

SAMRA: After the lady was transferred to the hospital, a number of tests were conducted, starting from the close circle of the lady, reaching out to the neighborhood and then a random sample from the camp. In total, 146 tests were made.

FORDHAM: Just four of those tests were positive, members of the woman's family. They are isolating at home. Local authorities coordinated with Palestinian leaders to restrict people and goods going in and out. Charities distributed supplies like masks. Still, it's a tough time. This weekend is the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

HARBEYE BAKRAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "The atmosphere in Ramadan - usually, it's like a holiday," says Harbeye Bakrawi (ph), who lives in the camp. Her family is originally from Galilee.

BAKRAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: Usually, everyone's out decorating houses, the entrance of the camp, the mosque.

BAKRAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "This year, Ramadan is so gloomy," she says, "so gloomy and we are frustrated. Part of that is that people have gotten even poorer because they can't work."

BAKRAWI: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "If I get the chance, I'll wear a mask and put on some gloves and go to work to feed my kids," she says. These economic realities are what really make it difficult for Lebanon to cope with the pandemic. The country is in financial crisis. There's not money for enough testing or quarantine centers, and it's hard to keep telling people not to go out to earn money.


FORDHAM: This is one of several recent demonstrations in Beirut. Plans to help the poor have stalled. Whatever the risk, hungry people will leave their homes in the end to work or protest or both. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUNG OCEANS' "GREAT IS OUR GOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!