Since the Venezuelan refugee crisis began in 2015, over 360,000 Venezuelans have fled to Ecuador where they have sought political and economic asylum away from the tumultuous governing in Venezuela. In Ecuador, Venezuelan refugees have created camps and have attempted to rebuild their lives to little avail due to xenophobia, limited job opportunities and harsh living environments. While these harsh living conditions have continued for the Venezuelan refugees for years, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified hardships. Spending the pandemic in a refugee camp involving cramped and overflowing shelters has caused refugees to become extremely vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19.
For the hundreds of thousands of impoverished and unemployed Venezuelan refugees living in cramped refugee camps, it is challenging to social distance or to retrieve information on COVID-19. Moreover, with limited money focused on food, shelter and provisions, refugees have little left to spend on personal hygiene or personal protective equipment. As a result, refugees do not have access to much-needed medical supplies to keep safe from virus transmissions such as masks, sanitizers, gloves or vitamins. Consequently, transmission rates in refugee camps are disproportionately higher than their urban Ecuadorian city counterparts, yet the medical care is disproportionately lower.
As hospitals in Ecuador have become overrun by sick patients and Ecuadorian first responders have become absorbed with endless virus-related emergencies, Ecuadorian healthcare workers have had to choose which patients they will actually provide medical care to. This decision oftentimes coincides with heavy racism against Venezuelan refugees. Consequently, first responders have often chosen to respond to the rich Ecuadorian citizens living in urbanized areas over the far away, impoverished Venezuelan refugee camps. Similarly, Ecuadoran doctors prefer to provide medical care to the more affluent Ecuadorian citizens who can surely pay their hospital bills rather than the refugees. In turn, Venezuelan refugees are not always able to use Ecuadorian healthcare and instead have to fend for themselves without medical supplies, information about the virus or the ability to social distance.
A Solution for Refugees Surviving a Pandemic in a Refugee Camp
Because solving xenophobia in Ecuador or empowering and enriching refugees could not rapidly happen in time so that they could receive proper treatment during the pandemic, refugees had to take matters into their own hands by looking to new initiatives to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Alongside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Venezuelan refugee communities in Ecuador developed the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System in an attempt to rapidly discover COVID-19 cases in refugee camps. The system can detect individuals with COVID-19 for quarantine purposes and consequently reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission amongst refugee communities.
Once the system detects them, patients receive information about their diagnosis along with referrals for proper treatment. The system reports all cases to the national health authorities so that Venezuelan refugees can identify who they were in contact with so that all parties can undergo quarantine and testing for the virus.
How it Works
Since launching in July 2020, the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System has detected hundreds of cases and has prevented the further spread of the virus for thousands of refugees. By identifying a suspect COVID-19 case, the system is able to assess a localized community point of potential exposure for other refugees. Once discovered, the system registers all information upon a public health database that records exposed individuals and provides them with information and medical treatment for the virus. Furthermore, the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System records if a COVID-19 patient or exposed individual has access to personal protective equipment, has preexisting conditions or lives in overcrowded environments that would make them and their neighbors more susceptible to the virus.
UNHCR taught six refugee camps across Ecuador the process of contact tracing. Trained refugees can utilize the Community Epidemiological Surveillance System. This results in using telephone hotlines, community visits by healthcare workers and providing medical provisions. The system is curbing COVID-19 spread in a pandemic in a refugee camp for vulnerable Venezuelans who would have very few medical opportunities otherwise.
– Caroline Largoza