Coronavirus outbreak in Iraqi Yazidi camps would be 'catastrophic' aid groups say

The minority group are now preparing for the worst as humanitarian groups have limited access to camps

Aid organisations at Khanke Camp, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, are concerned coronavirus could reach their camp. Courtesy The AMAR Foundation.
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Aid groups in Iraq are warning of a "catastrophe" if the coronavirus were to reach displacement camps for the Yazidi people.

Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Yazidis living in camps in northern Iraq are at risk of contracting the disease that has killed over 177,000 people worldwide.

Although there are no cases in the camps at present, the risk is growing as cases in wider Iraq grow. The country has so far confirmed over 1,600 infections and 83 coronavirus-related deaths.

ISIS targeted the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group, in 2014 after they overran large areas of Iraq and Syria, forcing them out of their homes and into sprawling displacement camps.

Over 15,000 Yazidis are currently based in the Khanke Camp in the northern Kurdish city of Duhok.

Yazidis are bracing for Covid-19

Yazidis are bracing for Covid-19

A medical clinic in Khanke, run by the AMAR Foundation, is doing all it can to raise awareness of the virus.

Volunteers at the clinic, who are trained by its manager Doctor Khalil Mahmood, tour various camps advising people on essential hygiene measures, social distancing, and measures on how to keep safe despite living in tents.

"Raising awareness of the disease is part of its treatment," Mr Mahmood told The National.

Yazidis have also been given cards and posters by the clinic to give them an extra reminder of being careful at all times.

For the last six years, the foundation's locally-educated and trained teams in the Kurdish region have been working tirelessly to help displaced Yazidis, AMAR's Founder and Chair, Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, told The National.

“Through our state-of-the-art clinics, our doctors, nurses, social workers and volunteers have been providing the best care for both their physical and mental health," Baroness Nicholson said.

Staff at the health clinic in Khanke Camp, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, have been teaching camp residents about the virus. Courtesy The AMARFoundation
Staff at the health clinic in Khanke Camp, near the Iraqi Kurdish city of Dohuk, have been teaching camp residents about the virus. Courtesy The AMARFoundation

"Now we are doing our best to ensure all camp residents know how to stay safe and avoid catching this dreadful virus."

She added AMAR clinics are remaining open and the "greatest" measures were being taken to ensure the safety of staff and patients.

If there is an outbreak, aid agencies fear the disease will spread quickly.

“It will be difficult for those to go into complete isolation and self-quarantine. There are usually five people in one tent and families are always together,” Mr Mahmood said.

"It would be a catastrophe."

The AMAR medical clinic does not have the capability to look after someone infected with coronavirus, so any patients suspected of having the virus would need to be transferred to a nearby hospital in Dohuk, Mr Mahmood said.

“News of the virus was a big concern for the Yazidis and they were effected emotionally,” Mr Mahmood said.

“But they are seeing the response of the medical centres and doctors from outside the camp are coming in especially to treat them and so they remain positive,” he said.

For centuries, the Yazidis, an ethno-religious group which emerged from Iran 4,000 years ago, lived in relative obscurity around the Sinjar mountains. But following persecution by ISIS the group hit international headlines.

Various Yazidi men and women took up military training to fight back against the militants, becoming a symbol of resistance.

But many Yazidis are still suffering from trauma resulting from attacks by ISIS.

The militant group launched an assault on Sinjar, the Yazidi heartland in 2014, where they shot, beheaded, burned alive or kidnapped more than 9,000 members of the minority group.

The United Nations called the attacks a genocidal campaign.

An unintended consequence of the lockdown to contain the virus has been the suspension of already limited psychosocial therapy support.

Aid groups have complained lockdown measures imposed by the government in the northern Kurdistan region have impeded their work.

"We've faced many difficulties in entering camps in Duhok because of coronavirus. The government knows that if this disease would spread inside the camps they wouldn't be able to control it," Vian Ahmed, regional manager of the Lotus Flower centres, a British NGO in Duhok, told The National.

“We have closed all of our women's centres inside the camp and have attempted to speak to women remotely but sometimes it’s not as effective,” Ms Ahmed said. “The government is not allowing this to happen unless there are critical cases."

The entire Yazidi population is experiencing mental trauma caused by the acts of genocide, and some are displaying severe psychological difficulties, said a joint statement by several humanitarian organsiations released last week.

“Among those at heightened risk are the women and girls who experienced systemic sexual violence, and the boys who were forcibly recruited by ISIS,” said the statement.

The World Health Organisation must undertake an “urgent assessment mission to Sinjar, Tel Afar and the Nineveh Plain, and provide testing capacities for all internally displaced camps,” said the statement.