Justin Schon, University of Florida
Coronavirus is spreading like wildfire. As of March 31, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center counted over 930,000 confirmed cases worldwide. While the virus struck East Asia, Europe, and North America first, Middle East and North African (MENA) countries are bracing themselves for severe damage. Among the many challenges that countries in the region face, refugee protection is particularly difficult. This is because refugees are likely to suffer from two contagions: coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus.
Refugees are especially vulnerable to coronavirus. International fears about this vulnerability have caused the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to suspend resettlement flights for migrants and refugees. Aid programs are also being cut, such as how UNHCR is cutting aid programs for refugees in Libya.
There are several factors that make refugees vulnerable. They tend to live in areas with high population density. This includes refugee camps and ethnic enclaves in large cities. In these high population density areas, refugees are often already in economically precarious situations that prevent them from staying home. As a result, both for demographic and economic reasons, refugees typically cannot engage in social distancing. In addition, refugee camps have severe shortages of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, so actions like frequent hand-washing are difficult if not impossible to perform. A recent UNICEF survey in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia found that 37% of migrant children and young people lacked WASH facilities.
Misinformation about the virus makes refugees even more vulnerable. This additional vulnerability comes from two main sources. First, refugees lack information about coronavirus and what to do if they develop symptoms. A recent survey from the Norwegian Refugee Council found that 81 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon “lacked knowledge” that they should immediately call the Health Ministry hotline if they develop symptoms of the virus or if they want to report a suspected case. Second, long-term refugee populations around the MENA region already experience hostility from host populations. Host-refugee division and mistrust provide fertile ground for misinformation. In sum, refugees are vulnerable to contracting the virus in large numbers, and that vulnerability is magnified by a lack of knowledge on how to respond and a risk that they will be scapegoated.
Two contagions: Coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus
Refugee populations are not just vulnerable to the possibility of these contagions spreading. Coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus are already spreading.
There are many limitations to existing data on the prevalence of coronavirus, but trends in confirmed cases still offer valuable perspective. As the figure in the opening essay of this issue shows, MENA countries are exhibiting exponential growth in their numbers of confirmed cases. Iran and Turkey have had two of the fastest growth rates of confirmed cases in the region so far, with the number of confirmed cases doubling roughly every 2 days for the first 10 days after the 100th confirmed case. Israel and Saudi Arabia have also had rapid growth in confirmed cases. The rest of the MENA region hasonly begun to detect coronavirus cases, has not been willing to admit that it has large numbers of cases, or has not been able to confirm the existence of coronavirus cases.
New coronavirus-specific misinformation risks aggravating these dynamics. Conspiracy theories identifying the “dirty hands” of the United States behind the initiation of coronavirus have already been shared by many political leaders in the Middle East. This conspiracy theory asserts that the United States military brought the virus to Wuhan, China in order to weaken its economic rival China. Hezbollah-affiliated television station Al-Manar is one of many sources that have spread this conspiracy theory. Anti-American conspiracy theories are already popular in the Middle East, so it is easy for this conspiracy theory to spread.
MENA leaders have also used misinformation about coronavirus to target rivals within the region. Sunni-Shia and intra-Gulf rifts have been central cleavages involved in these misinformation efforts. These include incidents like the emergence of a trending “Qatar is corona” Twitter hashtag. Business leaders, such as the CEO of Qatar Airways and leaders in Egypt’s tourism industry, also attempted to dismiss the severity of coronavirus in order to protect economic interests. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also become another cleavage for misinformation, with Palestinian PM Mohammad Shtayyeh alleging in a press conference that Israeli soldiers are trying to spread the virus through the door handles of cars.
The scapegoating of refugees for coronavirus is currently more of a feared possibility than current reality. The misinformation that has spread thus far has involved other divisions within MENA, but the fact that misinformation is spreading and that the misinformation is spreading along existing fault lines suggests that refugee-host divisions may soon become a relevant fault line for misinformation about coronavirus as well.
With both coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus spreading, there is also substantial risk that these contagions will reinforce each other. As coronavirus continues to spread and there is exponential growth in the number of people infected, people will become increasingly scared. Fear is a well-documented emotional facilitator for the spread of misinformation. Misinformation about coronavirus risks leading to people trying ineffective or unproven cures, violence against scapegoated populations (refugees are a common group for host populations to scapegoat), and policy responses that may excessively crack down on human rights and freedom of movement.
Responding to the contagions
MENA governments are taking both contagions seriously. Governments are increasingly taking aggressive actions to combat the spread of both coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus. Egypt has released some prominent opposition activists from jail in response to the pandemic. Saudi Arabia has offered to cover all medical expenses for people with coronavirus. The governments of Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt are so concerned about coronavirus rumors that they have all announced legal penalties as severe as flogging and imprisonment for anyone who spreads misinformation about the disease.
Leaders are also taking steps to lock down refugee camps and prevent coronavirus from spreading through refugee communities. Some Lebanese officials have called for Syrian and Palestinian camps to be locked down with nobody permitted to leave, a measure that would place refugees under harsher restrictions than Lebanese citizens. Jordan has already locked down its refugee camps at Zaatari and Azraq.
These measures may be useful for preventing the spread of coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus. Their deterrent effects might minimize social contact and minimize the opportunity for false information to spread. They could, however, also be abused. Strict movement restrictions on refugees and lockdowns of camps could be extended into long-term denial of freedom of movement and employment opportunities. “Fake news” legislation could create pathways for the repression of political activists. Algeria, for instance, has arrested dozens of people on charges such as “illegal gathering,” “harming state security,” “harming the integrity of national territory,” and “distribution of documents harming the national interest.” These arrests disproportionately include activists and dissidents, suggesting that coronavirus policies are being used as tools to increase state repression.
The Middle East and North Africa region will not be able to avoid coronavirus. It can, however, take action to minimize the damage from the two reinforcing contagions that threaten the region: coronavirus and misinformation about coronavirus. Refugee populations are particularly vulnerable to these contagions, so government action is especially critical for their well-being. If governments fail to act on both fronts, refugees will suffer.
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