“We were still recovering from war, then COVID-19 hit us”

Inside a displacement camp in Iraq, Anwar tells the effects the pandemic has had on her life.

In Iraq, a country taking the first steps to recovery after decades of conflict, now faces being tipped back into a full-blown emergency by the impact of COVID-19. For the 1.4 million peoples still living in displacement, with limited access to healthcare and especially vulnerable to economic shocks, the threat is especially severe and growing rapidly.

Anwar and her family were forced to sell all their belongings and flee their home in north Baghdad after ISIL captured their town in early 2017. They took refuge in a nearby IDP camp, which is currently home to 2,869 internally displaced Iraqis, and where Anwar’s family have lived for the past three years.

Now, after facing conflict, losing their home and enduring long-term displacement, Anwar and her family have been confronted with another critical threat; COVID-19.   Iraq reported its first case of the virus in mid-March and today the country has over 97,000 cases, with numbers continuing to rise rapidly.

The virus has completely changed our lives. We cannot move freely, we have curfews, and we miss being able to visit the people we love.

Years of war have devastated the Iraqi healthcare system, leaving it ill-equipped to handle the rising number of COVID-19 cases. While there is a clinic in the camp where 24-year-old Anwar lives, equipment and supplies are limited. Even basic protective gear like gloves and masks are hard to find, and if they are available, many of the residents simply cannot afford them.

We do not have access to adequate healthcare. Our only option is to protect ourselves from the virus.

To ensure that vulnerable residents can stay safe and access humanitarian assistance, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is continuing to manage camp coordination and delivery of essential services, including protection and the coordination of essential services like Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), food, health and education within HTC camp.

DRC teams have also been collaborating with a local health centre to disseminate important risk awareness messages to help prevent the spread of the virus. This includes a mass SMS campaign distributed to camp residents with messages about good hygiene and social distancing practices.

Iraqis in displacement camps do not only worry about healthcare, they also worry about the economic situation that has been severely affected due to the pandemic. The quarantine and curfews mean many people who depend on daily work no longer have a source of income to support their families. In a recent assessment by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), 85% of households reported at least one member being unable to work due to COVID-19 restrictions.

We are lucky since our father receives a pension, but other families are struggling to afford their basic needs. Food prices have increased.

Iraqi households worry about what their future would hold for them should this situation persist for much longer. Unable to go to work, and without savings to support them, many displaced people in Iraq will be plunged deeper into poverty. Without other options, already vulnerable families will be forced to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as child labour, child marriage and debt just to survive.

We cannot handle lockdowns and curfews for much longer.

For Anwar, the continuation of the pandemic means her life is on hold. The family were planning to return home to Baghdad during the month of May, but the arrival of the pandemic has derailed their plans, leaving them unsure of when they will be able to return to normal life. 

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise rapidly in Iraq, it is vulnerable people like Anwar who will be hit the hardest. Having already endured decades of conflict and displacement, they are now facing both the immediate health risks of the virus and the longer-term threat to the economy. In Iraq, as around the world, DRC continues to work on the ground delivering front-line, life-saving assistance where it is most needed, now and for the future.

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*All photos were taken by Anwar through her cellphone.