Coronavirus: Lebanon announces first case of Covid-19 among refugee population

The infected patient is a Palestinian refugee from Syria, the United Nations refugee agency said

FILE - In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Syrian refugee children play outside their family tents at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Wednesday, April 22, 20202, that a Palestinian woman from Syria living in a refugee camp in Lebanon has become the first refugee to test positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)
Powered by automated translation

Lebanon announced its first case of Covid-19 among its refugee population on Tuesday evening.

The small country has been spared a large outbreak of the virus up to now, but local authorities fear it could spread rapidly in overcrowded Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps.

"The first #Covid19 patient from a refugee camp in Bekaa was transported tonight to RHUH [Rafic Hariri University Hospital]" Firass Abiad, the hospital's director, tweeted late on Tuesday evening.

Mr Abiad said a surveillance team from the Ministry of Health would visit the camp to trace the virus and test locals.

UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees in the Arab region, issued a press release saying the infected patient was a Palestinian woman who fled the war in Syria.

The agency will cover her medical bills at Rafic Hariri hospital, where most of the country’s Covid-19 cases are being treated.

The woman lived in the UNRWA managed camp of Jalil, also known as Wavel, which is near the city of Baalbek in the Bekaa region of eastern Lebanon.

Baalbek is one of the least infected parts of Lebanon, with fewer than five cases detected, government statistics show.

About 10,000 people live in the camp, mostly in French mandate-era army barracks, which lack daylight and adequate ventilation. Due to its remote location, access to hospital treatment “is difficult and costly,” UNRWA’s website said.

“Since last night, we have intensified [quarantine] procedures inside and outside the camp, taking into consideration its overlap with the city [of Baalbek],” the governor of Baalbek and Hermel, Bachir Khodr, tweeted on Wednesday.

Palestinian factions inside the camp of Jalil said they had contacted the patient’s family to make sure that they remained quarantined. The camp has been put on lockdown, with no entry or exit possible.

Lebanon’s civil emergency authority, tasked with combating the coronavirus, provided the camp with a sterilisation room to be placed at its entrance to disinfect people and goods exiting and entering the camp in the future.

To date, Lebanon has detected only 677 cases including 21 deaths. But officials fear it would be hard to contain its spread should it hit one of the country’s many refugee camps, where people live in overcrowded conditions with little access to healthcare.

Syrian and Palestinian refugees represent roughly one quarter of Lebanon’s population. Of those infected in Lebanon, one is Palestinian and lives outside a camp, and three others are Syrian citizens.

The UNRWA says about 450,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, though a government survey conducted in 2017 found that figure to be far lower, at 175,000. UNRWA also supports about 40,000 Palestinians who fled the Syrian war in the past decade.

UNRWA’s 2015 socio-economic survey of Palestinians in Lebanon found 90 per cent of Palestinians from Syria lived in poverty, a figure that dropped to 65 per cent among Palestinian refugees whose ancestors moved to Lebanon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.