The spectre of coronavirus placing severely overcrowded refugee camps in Greece has hovered menacingly for months.

International support organisations, human rights teams and docs have sounded the alarm. With the unfold of the pandemic, calls for motion to stop impending medical disaster have turn out to be shriller. In Aegean islands on the frontline of the disaster, well being carers converse of days gained, not gained.

But an outbreak of the illness in two facilities close to Athens has intensified considerations over the estimated 36,000 males, ladies and kids stranded on distant isles reverse the Turkish coast.

Installations on Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros and Kos – at six occasions over capability, sprawling, wretched and congested – the place social distancing, and different precautionary measures are an unattainable privilege, provide fertile floor for Covid-19.

“Time is on nobody’s side,” mentioned Dutch doctor Steven van de Vijver, the driving drive behind an online petition urging EU leaders to convey refugees to security by agreeing to take them in from Greece. Since its launch final week, greater than 6,000 European docs have signed the attraction.

“It’s going to require superhuman force and a lot of luck now to stop this potentially lethal virus penetrating island camps,” he mentioned. “At this point, I would say it’s almost impossible that it won’t happen.”

After two weeks working in Moria, the squalid and notoriously overpopulated holding facility on Lesbos, De Vijver realised it was an phantasm to suppose that, in such circumstances, Covid-19 may very well be stored below management.

“It would be a miracle and it’s dangerous to expect miracles to happen. Coronavirus doesn’t respect borders or barbed wire. People, camp workers, go in and out all the time, and with them the risk of the virus,” he mentioned.

It could be a miracle to cease the virus coming into the camps and it is harmful to anticipate miracles to occur

Steven van de Vijver

Greek authorities recognise that they’re in a race in opposition to the clock. Detection of the illness in camps in Malakasa and Ritsona – amongst 30 refugee services on the mainland – has put them in uncharted territory. Malakasa was positioned in quarantine on Sunday, hours after an Afghan refugee started displaying signs of the virus; Ritsona, 75km north-east of the capital, was sealed off after 23 African asylum seekers examined optimistic on Thursday.

Speaking to the Guardian after ordering the primary lockdown, Manos Logothetis, the migration ministry’s common secretary answerable for asylum seekers’ reception, mentioned: “It’s the first case of coronavirus in a reception centre and, yes, we are testing our responses. We’ve quarantined the entire area and taken steps to isolate those with the virus. It’s not been easy, there’ve been protests.

“Food has been brought by the International Organization for Migration, which is running the site, along with translators and cultural mediators. Testing will continue.”

The outbreak was traced to a 19-year-old Cameroonian lady discovered to be contaminated after giving delivery in an Athens hospital.

Ritsona is counting on meals handouts from the International Organization for Migration. Photograph: Yannis Kolesidis/EPA

“All the rest who have tested positive are asymptomatic,” mentioned Logothetis, a physician himself. “I found that surprising, but as in all the camps Ritsona’s population is young. Most are under the age of 40 which is why we believe they’ll be able to ride this out.”

However, many disagree. A surge in migrants from Turkey, even earlier than the epidemic arrived in Europe, had elevated considerations over the cramped and unsanitary circumstances of reception centres in Greece.

Increasingly, NGOs have voiced fears over lack of entry to testing, medical services and primary companies, together with water stations and faucets. Calls for the evacuation of refugees to other EU countries have also soared amid evidence of the devastating effect coronavirus is likely to have on an already vulnerable population.

Holding facilities on the mainland are generally managed better; refugees are accommodated in containers and pre-fab houses, in stark contrast to the tent cities on the Aegean isles that have long borne the brunt of the migrant and refugee crisis.

“It is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ coronavirus strikes the camps,” said Sanne van der Kooij, a Dutch gynaecologist who has similarly volunteered in Moria multiple times. “I do not have a good feeling. I was last in Lesbos in February and worked at the local hospital where pregnant refugee women are moved to give birth. There were only six ICU beds and the care was very poor. The bed linens were filthy and the Greek doctors and nurses were clearly overwhelmed by the extra work.”

Although so far confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported only among local people on Lesbos, refugees requiring emergency medical help run the risk of contracting the virus, she said. “In the hospital for example. That’s where so many will be at threat of coronavirus infection. And then the spread inside [the facility] will be very difficult to stop.”

Most asylum seekers in the island camps are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. Unable to leave because of a containment policy decided by the EU, they’ve discovered themselves in limbo, trapped on the outposts reverse the Turkish coast till their asylum requests are processed.

Almost 35,000 European well being employees and different residents have additionally backed the docs’ petition calling on EU governments to adjust to an accord struck with Turkey in 2016 below which every member state agreed to soak up a hard and fast variety of refugees. Although it’s central to a pact geared toward curbing migratory flows, the resettlement pledge was by no means fulfilled.

Greece has, to this point, had relative success in preserving transmission of the illness below management, saying fewer than 2,000 confirmed coronavirus circumstances and a dying toll of 76.

But well being officers warn that the approaching weeks are essential.

“The EU will have blood on its hands if it continues to look away,” warned De Vijver, talking from Amsterdam the place most of his sufferers within the metropolis’s most important hospital are actually affected by coronavirus.

“There are 22,000 people in Moria: men, women and children all packed into an area that is a fraction of the size of Hyde Park. Scabies, pneumonia, diarrhoea are rife,” he mentioned, including that circumstances had deteriorated markedly since NGOs and volunteer medics had left the island following violent assaults by far-right vigilantes final month.

“I was astounded to see that this terrible situation had caused 80% of the complaints we were dealing with. Politicians in the EU have a moral obligation to take these people in,” he mentioned.

Greece’s centre-right authorities has described the camps as “ticking health bombs”.

So far this 12 months about 10,000 asylum seekers have been moved from the islands to the mainland – together with 1,785 to closed, pre-deportation centres – in accordance with the UN refugee company. Plans are afoot to switch one other 600 individuals – 300 aged refugees and their dependents – to accommodations in Athens.

Reflecting restrictive measures enforced throughout Greece to fight Covid-19, authorities have allowed ATMs to be put in within the island services, as a part of a wider lockdown on the camps.

But Logothetis accepts that within the occasion of a “mass coronavirus outbreak”, well being officers on Lesbos could be arduous pushed to manage. “In an ideal world we would rent a big venue, keep it warm and kit it out with beds. That I hope will be the next phase of our emergency operational plan because with so few ICUs on the island we don’t have the capacity to withstand the pressure if a lot of people were to get sick at the same time.”

The pandemic has successfully stopped any prospect of voluntary returns of migrants below a EU-funded scheme introduced final month. Citing coronavirus considerations, the asylum service can also be sputtering. Though operational once more following Athens’ suspension of purposes in response to Turkey’s abrupt resolution to calm down border controls and enable refugees to move to Europe, the service shouldn’t be receiving new requests.

Migrants and refugees queue in a makeshift camp next to the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos on 2 April.
Doctors have warned concerning the penalties of a widespread outbreak within the island camps. Photograph: Manolis Lagoutaris/AFP

Hopes of resettling round 1,600 unaccompanied kids to different elements of Europe have additionally dwindled. Officials say member states now need further well being checks, “which will take time”.

With the spectre of gridlock, Athens has come below elevated strain from the EU to relocate asylum seekers to the mainland. But that, says Greece’s migration minister Notis Mitarachi, is virtually unattainable with out satisfactory lodging.

Addressing the EU parliament’s residence affairs committee as police moved to lock down Ritsona, he reiterated what prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has mentioned repeatedly: Europe ought to do extra to assist as a result of Greece “cannot resolve this crisis instantly and alone”.

It is a chorus echoed by Logothetis. “We need support and we need to share the burden,” he mentioned. “If each of the other 26 EU member states agreed to take in 2,000 people, our problem would be more than settled. I’d be able to empty the islands in a day.”

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