Top aid workers in Greece have warned that migrant camps in the country could provide the perfect conditions for coronavirus outbreaks, after an asylum seeker living in a mainland camp tested positive for the disease.
The first confirmed case within the Greek migrant camp system prompted alarm over potentially devastating outbreaks among asylum seekers, who often live in unhygienic and cramped conditions with poor access to clean water and medical care.
The director of Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) programmes in Greece, Apostolos Veisis, said people living in the overcrowded camps were at a heightened risk from the virus because they could not practise the social-distancing and hygiene measures adopted by countries across the world.
"The refugee camps are the perfect place for disaster to be seen," Mr Veisis told The National.
Tens of thousands of people are housed in camps on the mainland, and there are another 36,000 people crammed into the overstretched, unsanitary refugee centres on the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos.
Mr Veisis repeated his organisation's calls for the camps, which have so far not reported any confirmed cases, to be evacuated and said it was "not impossible" to prevent widespread outbreaks of the virus.
The evacuation of the camps "needs to be a priority for the European Union", he added. "Normally we call for evacuations during war time."
Medical workers at the island camps are ill-equipped and under-staffed to cope with outbreaks of the disease, he said, noting that on the island of Samos, where one of the country's most overcrowded camps is located, there are only two intensive care beds and only one doctor.
The MSF director warned that people with chronic medical conditions including diabetes and asthma, who are at a heightened risk of developing severe forms of Covid-19, were not getting the treatment they need in the camps.
And the pandemic, Mr Veisis said, has already caused "mental health deterioration" among migrants suffering under stricter confinement rules imposed by the Greek government.
Residents' movements have been drastically curtailed for the next several weeks, with access to nearby communities only allowed to small groups under police supervision between 7am and 7pm.
Camp access to outside visitors is also barred, though aid and rights group representatives may still enter.
Suspicions over the spread of the virus, he added, were also contributing to higher tensions between refugees and residents on the islands.
"I'm afraid of the reaction of the local people towards the refugees," he said. Tensions have already boiled over into violence against migrants and aid workers in the camps.
Nicolas Perrenoud, spokesman for the Swiss-run NGO One Happy Family which supports migrants on the island of Lesbos, told The National it was "only a matter of time" before coronavirus spread to the camp, home to the country's single largest population of asylum seekers.
MSF earlier said the evacuation of the camps was “more urgent than ever”, as the first case of the virus was reported on the island, where the sprawling Moria camp is located.
“In some parts of Moria camp, there is just one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap available,” MSF’s Medical Coordinator in Greece, Hilde Vochten, said. “Families of five or six have to sleep in spaces of no more than three square metres.”
“This means that recommended measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus are just impossible.”
A Greek woman in her Seventies on Monday became the first person to die of Covid-19 on the Aegean island.
First case confirmed in mainland camp
A refugee living in the Ritsona camp, around 80 kilometres from Athens, tested positive for the virus after giving birth at a hospital in the capital, Greece’s migration ministry said on Tuesday.
The woman is the first resident of one of the country's migrant camps to test positive for Covid-19.
The ministry said another person living with the new mother had tested negative for the virus.
"The public health organisation is already tracking the contacts of this case in recent days, and taking all necessary measures to protect [camp] residents and staff," the ministry said.
Ten medical staff at the hospital where the woman gave birth have been quarantined and three other people who shared the same ward are being tested, a hospital source said.
There have been 49 recorded deaths and 1,314 confirmed cases of coronavirus across Greece, which has a population of 11 million.
The country has called for “urgent” EU backing to prepare for possible outbreaks within its camps. “It is extremely important to act in a timely manner to avert such a possibility," Giorgos Koumoutsakos, a junior migration minister, told EU internal affairs ministers in a teleconference on Friday.
A European Commission spokesperson this week said the bloc was "working with the Greek authorities to assist them in preparing an emergency response plan to deal with a potential outbreak of the coronavirus on the islands".
Mr Veizis said: "Something can be done and it is better late than never.
"It's a matter of political will," he said, adding that politicians should "vaccinate against indifference" and not allow the pandemic to become an excuse for inaction.
"These are people who have a name, these are people who have a story, these are people like you and me."