An outbreak of COVID-19 in Camp Moria is getting closer and closer. The number of infections in Lesvos has risen considerably in recent weeks. The lockdown, which has been restricting people from leaving the camp since March, has tightened even further. The doctors of the Boat Refugee Foundation are seeing a large increase in mental health problems among the camp’s residents. “People have nowhere to go, even though the demand is immense right now.”
In a short period of time, the number of corona cases on Lesvos rose to at least fifty. Therefore, a virus outbreak in Camp Moria is becoming increasingly likely. The consequences of an outbreak in the overcrowded camp are incalculable. The conditions in Moria mean it has been a ticking time bomb for years now. One corona case – a camp with 15,000 inhabitants, with limited access to running water, general hygiene and medical facilities and many vulnerable people – can easily infect the entire camp in a matter of days. In addition, Médecins Sans Frontières was forced, by the Greek authorities, to close its COVID-19 isolation centre at the end of July. As a result, isolating infected people is practically impossible.
Since the start of the lockdown, six months ago, people can only leave the camp with permission from the police or a doctor’s statement. Since the increase of corona infections on the island, the measures have been further tightened: all so-called non-essential activities are now prohibited, including education and psychological support. The restrictions on leaving the campsite are discriminatory: they only apply to people from Moria. Other residents of the island are free to move.
Alarming lack of mental health care
They measures limit access to essential services such as health care, education, legal aid and food. People in urgent need of care from the hospital, a psychologist, pharmacy or dentist can hardly be referred. “This has always been a problem in Moria, but it is now more extreme than ever before. People are walking around with severe dental infections without access to treatment. In addition, we are witnessing a particularly distressing lack in mental health care. This was already very limited, but now traumatised people really have no one to turn to”, says Karin Arendsen, Boat Refugee Foundation’s field coordinator on Lesvos.
“Mental health care for people in Moria was already very limited, but now traumatised people really have no one to turn to.”
No more prevention
Existing psychological complaints have worsened since the lockdown, says Jamilah Sherally, medical coordinator of Boat Refugee Foundation on Lesbos. “Many patients are clearly dealing with psychological disorders such as depression, suicidality and panic attacks. Other symptoms seem to be directly linked to mental health, such as headaches, insomnia, low back pain and stomach complaints. Remarkably, most patients only experience these symptoms after arriving in Moria.”
The emergence of many new symptoms may be due to a lack in prevention. Because of the restrictive measures, Boat Refugee Foundation has been forced to shut down its psychosocial support programme in the camp. “Many of the complaints we see could have been remedied. For example, through the mental health and stress relief classes that we normally offer,” says Sherally. The ban on preventive care, also from other aid organisations, together with the lockdown leads to stress and powerlessness. Arendsen: “People are in a swelteringly hot camp without basic facilities. They have no prospects at all and can do nothing but sit still and wait. Doing nothing under these circumstances is maddening, is what many people say.”
“People have no prospects at all and can do nothing but sit still and wait. Doing nothing under these circumstances is maddening, is what many people say.”
Children also affected
The thousands of children in Moria are also seriously affected by the consequences of the lockdown. They can no longer go to school, the only place where they can be a child for a while and forget their worries. They have to stay in their tents for days without any distraction and are exposed to severe, long-term stress. This can be hugely detrimental to their development. Doctors in Moria see children who have stopped talking or sleeping and who have started wetting the bed again.
Without adequate care, the situation will worsen each day, Sherally fears. “Lockdowns have consequences for mental health worldwide. Under the wretched conditions of a camp like Moria, these consequences are very perceptible. We do not have exact data, but I am sure that most medical problems in Moria stem directly from mental health issues: whether they are victims of a stabbing, patients with sleep problems or the woman who comes back for the seventh time with a headache. Good care and prevention could have prevented these complaints. Now the problem is only getting worse.”
Doctors in Moria see children who have stopped talking or sleeping and who have started wetting the bed again.
Arendsen and Sherally advocate that immediate evacuation is therefore the only solution. “The chances of corona reaching the camp are increasingly likely. The consequences will be very dramatic. People are already very vulnerable and as a result will fall ill quicker. The pressure on the local healthcare will increase even further. Mytilene’s only hospital cannot cope with an outbreak in Moria with insufficient staff, breathing equipment and only six ICU beds. I fear that this will lead to panic and that patients who need care for other reasons will no longer be able to be seen. Ultimately, I fear that people will die unnecessarily as a result,” says Arendsen.
“Moria is a European refugee camp. The fact that the EU, knowing what a corona outbreak could result in here, refuses to take responsibility and does not offer people humane reception and a fair asylum procedure, is unacceptable. It is high time that other EU countries showed solidarity with Greece, complied with the Refugee Convention and jointly provided for the proper reception of these people. Contrary to what the Dutch government says, evacuation is a structural solution.”