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Coronavirus: Shatila camp residents are becoming increasingly aware of the threat

Even though confinement measures were finally respected in the overcrowded Shatila camp, some local officials are warning that in the event of the virus spreading, the means to fight it are almost non-existent.

As shops gradually close, the Municipality of Ghobeiry carries out a disinfection campaign. AFP Photo / Anwar Amro

The Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, located between Ghobeiry (in the southern suburb) and Beirut, is slowly adapting to the directives of the "general mobilization" announced by the Lebanese Cabinet on March 22 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. "Today, I went for a walk in the camp. I was impressed by the calm prevailing there," said Haytham Takrouri, who who lived many years inside the shantytown before moving out. "I never imagined in my entire life that I would see the streets of the camp so deserted. Confinement orders are not fully respected yet, but it is a start."

Khaled Abu el-Nour, a camp resident and member of the popular committees, underlines however the difficulty of convincing the shantytown residents of the need to stay home. "We have noticed in recent days that most of the people were compliant (with the lockdown measures), but it took too long," Abu el-Nour said. "The problem is that most of the residents are day laborers, with small businesses. They insist on working because otherwise they will not be able to support their families." With many shops remaining open, the popular committees and the various Palestinian factions have asked the Ghobeiry municipality to help force the closure of businesses at 4 p.m., and the cafes to remain closed."

The Shatila camp is a half square kilometer-area, most of which is located in Ghobeiry (bordering Beirut). This small space is very densely populated, like almost all the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, with nearly 5,000 dwellings and between 20,000 to 25,000 inhabitants, according to Abu el-Nour. Families, he explained, live in cramped apartments in buildings where additional floors are being built to accommodate their growing numbers. The camp's narrow streets are generally crowded with passers-by and customers of multiple stalls, attached to one another, selling all kinds of goods. Furthermore, the camp adjoins the famous vegetable and fruit market of Sabra, which attracts many customers and wholesalers, coming from various regions of Lebanon. The Shatila camp population is not exclusively Palestinian: there is a new population of Palestinians who fled Syria, Syrian refugees, as well as Lebanese.


Difficulty in limiting access

"The camp is at risk if the virus does spread (inside the shantytown)," said Khaled Abu el-Nour. He explained that on one hand, it is very difficult to limit access because the camp has several entrances, including some uncontrolled which are well-known to the inhabitants. "It is a camp with continuous interaction with the city and so the possibility of contamination by people from outside the camp is not excluded." The other risk factor is the fact that this is an overcrowded area where families are crammed in small apartments.

"We haven't yet registered any confirmed (coronavirus) cases, Thank God! But if this happens, it is very easy to imagine how quickly the virus would spread," he said. "We are being told about t home quarantine. How can we do that when a family is confined to such a small space? "

Frightened by the prospect of the virus spreading, more and more camp residents are now choosing to stay home, just like Abu el-Nour’s own family. His wife Amina Hassanein, mother of three children aged 7, 10 and 12, describes what it is like to live in a Palestinian camp under coronavirus lockdown . "I have forbidden my children to go to the streets, even if they become unbearable and hard to handle,"she told L’ OLJ. Her children are studying online, with only one teacher coming to their house to give them lessons. "Reluctant at first, I finally convinced him that the house is continuously cleaned and sanitized, and that we are taking all necessary precautions."

Amina is afraid for her children as well as for her parents who live nearby. "I don't understand why some people chose to disregard the precautionary measures, whether out of nonchalance, mistrust, or out of need," she said. "They are putting us all at risk. I have noticed that the Syrian newcomers are allowing their children to play outside, as if we are in a normal situation."


Urgent assistance

Amina's fears are well justified. The Shatila camp, like all the other Palestinian camps, has very little resources to face the possible spread of the epidemic. "A spread of the virus in such an environment would be catastrophic, given the popular density," said Khaled Abu el-Nour.

The precautionary measures taken so far are minimal. Streets and public places were disinfected while measures were taken against lockdown violators. Many NGOs, active in the camp, are helping raising public awareness about protection and personal hygiene measures to fight the coronavirus."

Just like the rest of the country, but much more acutely, the Palestinian camps are faced with a double problem: a growing economic crisis and the risk of contamination of a large section of the population. "Our people are tired... and are in a difficult situation," said Abu el-Nour. "If this current crisis lasts indefinitely, it will be a disaster."

What if the epidemic spreads? Haytham and Khaled Abu el-Nour are both worried and warning. "Today I was at the office of the Palestinian National Crescent (the equivalent of the Lebanese Red Cross)," said Takrouri. "They have centers, but they are under-equipped. And if there are cases of coronavirus, they certainly do not have the same means as the CRL (Lebanese Red Cross) to safely transport the infected people.”

Abu el-Nour explained that UNRWA is the one providing medical assistance to the Palestinian refugees but the U.N. agency which is already facing great difficulties "has no emergency plan for the camp in case of a widespread contamination."

The two men emphasized that the camp residents must be offered an urgent economic aid to help them comply with strict confinement and cope with the situation. They called on the Palestine Liberation Organization, UNRWA and wealthy Palestinians living abroad, to take action and secure such needed assistance.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 25th of March)



The Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila, located between Ghobeiry (in the southern suburb) and Beirut, is slowly adapting to the directives of the "general mobilization" announced by the Lebanese Cabinet on March 22 to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. "Today, I went for a walk in the camp. I was impressed by the calm prevailing there," said Haytham Takrouri, who who lived many years...