“We cannot face another crisis.”In Iraq, families already made vulnerable through forcible displacement and decades of conflict, fear the impact of another crisis in COVID-19.
Emani*, a 50-year-old mother of two, still remembers the day she was forced to flee her home in northern Iraq when ISIL took control of their village:
“Military aircraft were bombing us; we had to flee to save our lives. We left our home and everything we owned. We went through the Makhoul Mountains, then across the desert of west Salah Adin then to Syria to Jordan then to Turkey. The journey took more than two months.”
The long road home
More than 1.4 million people in Iraq remain displaced; many in overcrowded camps and still more in vulnerable out-of-camp settings with limited access to WASH facilities and healthcare. Those that can return often face further challenges, as Emani explains:
“When we came back, the situation in our village was very hard; there were no jobs, and we had spent all of our savings on rent while we were displaced, so we had no money. Mortar shells severely damaged our house, it is barely standing, and it will be very expensive to rebuild it. Despite the water projects in the area, it’s still a challenge to get enough water to cover our needs. Sometimes we have to wait for days to get water, and we have to buy water from tankers.”
COVID-19: the threat of a new crisis
Iraq is a country taking the first steps to recovery after decades of conflict. It now faces being tipped back into a full-blown emergency by the impact of COVID-19.
Alongside the immediate health and protection risks, there is the growing threat of an economic crisis. A recent dramatic drop in global oil prices is likely to have a severe impact on the national economy, which relies on oil for 90% of its revenue. A nationwide lockdown, imposed to slow the spread of the virus, has forced daily labourers such as construction workers, street vendors, domestic workers, and taxi drivers to stay at home. Unable to work, they risk eviction from their homes, and many are forced to the edge of hunger.
For families like Emani’s, who have suffered through conflict and displacement, lost their savings and struggle to find work, the prospect of a further crisis through COVID-19 is devastating:
“My husband is unemployed and can’t find work as there are no jobs in our village. I have a small shop that helped me to cover the basic needs of my family, but it’s not enough. When the virus came, my work stopped; life stopped. Now we have no income, and we are in a desperate situation. We cannot face another crisis.”
Urgent humanitarian assistance
The arrival of COVID-19 in Iraq is a rapidly growing crisis that requires an urgent humanitarian response.
In such a critical emergency, cash distributions are a fast, effective way to reach the most vulnerable. Cash distributions help both to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable families and to stimulate the local economy.
In response to the current crisis, DRC has been carrying out cash distributions to at-risk families across Iraq. For Emani, the distribution was a vital lifeline for her and her family:
“I got two rounds of cash assistance which helped me and family to cover most of my needs and especially in the circumstances of COVID-19 where life almost stopped. We managed to buy basic needs like food and clothes for our kids. If I didn’t get those two cash rounds, I really don’t know what would happen to us.”
We must act now
The immediate health needs of the global pandemic need to be met quickly to save lives and alleviate suffering. However, the looming economic crisis represents perhaps an even greater threat.
To protect families like Emani’s, the humanitarian community need to act now to address the immediate economic consequences of COVID-19. More than 4.1 million people in Iraq are still in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and extremely vulnerable to further risks. Humanitarian response must be scaled up across Iraq to prevent further harm to displaced populations now and in the future, and to prevent a ‘crisis within a crisis’.
The Danish Refugee Council has just launched its first ever global appeal to address the consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak for displaced persons. If no action is taken now, DRC warns that the COVID-19 crisis will have devastating impacts far beyond the immediate health risks. Read more here.
*Name changed to protect her identity