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Trapped by the blockade, the people of Gaza cannot escape COVID-19

The recent lockdowns and restrictions make it feel like a strange time to be alive. Sadly, for Palestinians, it’s part and parcel of the struggle of everyday life. And now, as COVID-19 spreads across the globe, they face a new threat.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Gaza is already experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis. A 13-year-long blockade has devastated the economy, caused widespread destruction and left most people largely cut off from the outside world.

Ahmed taking his donkey out to find water
Ahmed will take his donkey and cart out several times a week to fetch clean water. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

With more than 5,000 people per square kilometre, the besieged enclave – where, as of 3rd April, there were 12 official cases of COVID-19 – is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Social distancing is key to keeping the virus at bay but Palestinians living under the blockade are trapped. Poor water infrastructure also means that proper hand washing is often impossible.

Residents have nowhere to go and no means of avoiding transmission. In an area where one in eight people relies on life-saving aid, the virus would do untold damage to two million vulnerable people.

A major outbreak is likely to see the collapse of Gaza’s ailing health system, which is already overrun with patients suffering from waterborne diseases. Gaza is also dependent on Israel for critical medical cases, but the threat of COVID-19 has created a level of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis that has rarely, if ever, been seen before.

As well as the health system implications, COVID-19 could further destroy the economy of Gaza, which already has an unemployment rate of 47 percent. Small shops have shut their doors due to the crisis and business-owners have no income to pay their staff or provide for their own families. With movement restricted even more to prevent a further spread of the virus in Gaza, many families are already finding themselves unable to put food on the table.

With our humanitarian staff in Gaza bracing themselves for the worst, funding is vital to ensure that the weak economy and health system won’t completely collapse

What Oxfam is doing

With the support of Irish Aid, our teams have mobilised to urgently respond to the threat of Covid-19 in Gaza. We are providing protection equipment for healthcare workers, beds for patients in quarantine centres, soap and other essential hygiene products. We’re also providing hygiene kits to vulnerable families through our partner organisations.

Equipment arriving in Gaza
Oxfam staff receiving hygiene and protective gear items that will be distributed in quarantine centres. Photo: Sami Alhaw/Oxfam

Our water engineers are ensuring public water taps used by the most vulnerable families can be used safely. With no other source of clean water, these families are most at risk of catching the virus.

We’re helping the vulnerable families put food on the table and buy hygiene items and access clean water to protect them from the outbreak. We are currently maintaining 14 water filling points in vulnerable communities where between 35,000 and 70,000 people will need to rely on depending on the severity of the outbreak. In addition, we’re spreading awareness about best hygiene and health practices to avoid further spread of cases across the West Bank, where 148 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.

Please help us to continue this life-saving work in vulnerable communities in Gaza and beyond.

COVID-19: Only if the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe

The collective efforts to tackle the virus that we are seeing across Ireland and the UK have been impressive. However, it’s critical that we act now to prevent it spreading unchecked among the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

As former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said recently, coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Only if and until the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

In the face of a pandemic, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak. Nobody is immune to this virus – not royalty, not prime ministers.

The situation for the most vulnerable

While the wealthy can be tested and treated quickly with the help of functioning healthcare systems, millions of others face uncertainty in the midst of a global threat.

The world’s poorest communities are particularly vulnerable, as they already face multiple threats to their health and livelihoods. Nearly three billion people across the developing world have no access to clean water, while millions more don’t have adequate healthcare and live in crowded slums or refugee camps where social isolation is impossible.

We are concerned that COVID-19 will overwhelm poorer countries with weak public health systems. In Mali, for example, there are just three ventilators for one million people, while in Zambia, there is only one doctor for 10,000 people. Even more worrying is the prospect of the virus hitting refugee camps or anywhere else where people are already struggling to access healthcare or food.

Rural IDP camp in Democratic Republic of Congo
View of a hospital in an internally-displaced people camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: John Wessels/Oxfam

Women on the frontline

Women are on the frontline of infection risk – they make up 70 percent of health workers and carry out most unpaid care work, so it will most likely hit them the hardest.

Women also shoulder the vast burden of unpaid care which is bound to increase dramatically, whether caring for sick relatives or looking after children at home because schools are closed.

unpaid care work mostly falls on women
After working long days as a day care teacher in the Philippines, Rowena used to come home and do all the care work. Now, her husband helps cook, clean and mind their child. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

What we need to tackle this crisis

Governments in rich countries have mobilised billions of dollars in no time to fight COVID-19 and its effects. They should now support poorer countries in making the strongest-possible preparations to fight the coronavirus health emergency.

We are urging the leaders of the G20 to urgently provide the necessary resources to reduce the loss of life and support those most vulnerable.

We need to double health spending in poor countries to prevent some 40 million deaths. That’s the estimate of how many people could die worldwide from coronavirus, according to Imperial College London, unless there is an urgent and coordinated global response.

Oxfam calculates that doubling the public health spending would cost nearly $160 billion (€145/£130bn). This is less than 10 percent of the US fiscal stimulus to fight coronavirus. The required investment is minute compared to the social and economic costs of inaction.

Immediate debt cancellation and aid funding for the 85 poorest countries, home to nearly half the world’s population, would enable them to take action to prevent the spread of the disease and improve health systems to care for those affected.

Our response to the virus

We are working with local partners, governments and key UN agencies to support our programme teams across more than 65 countries on how best to respond operationally to COVID-19.

This includes preventive measures especially for people in higher-risk environments such as refugee camps or crowded urban areas.

In Cox’s Bazar, for instance, Rohingya refugees face the double threat of COVID-19 and the imminent monsoon rains which will turn the camps in Bangladesh into infected rivers of mud. We’re distributing soap and building showers, toilets and handwashing stations to prevent the spread of diseases including coronavirus. In addition, we’ve recruited more than 600 Rohingya volunteers to help us reach other refugees with hygiene information.

We’re doing all we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable communities. You can help us save lives.

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COVID-19: Your local Oxfam shop needs you

Last week, for the first time in over 60 years, our shops across the island of Ireland closed. We made this difficult decision to protect our staff and volunteers, and to do our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Our shops play an invaluable role in raising much-needed funds for our work worldwide – they help ensure we can continue to protect and support some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

However, they’re not just vital to our organisation, each one is community hub that has served and been supported by you for decades.

Oxfam secondhand fashion shop

With our shops closed, we need your support now more than ever.

At this time of unprecedented change for all of us, our mission remains the same – to let you, our supporters, know how you can help communities facing extreme poverty and disaster. Life-saving work that is only possible because of you.

We believe that sharing the stories and experiences of the communities we work with is even more important now as we monitor and prepare for the potential rapid spread of COVID-19 in the countries in which we work. For people living in flimsy shelters in refugee camps and in communities without adequate hygiene and health infrastructure, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

Oxfam secondhand fashion shop in Dublin city centre

We’re urgently appealing for your help and want to share some ways that you can continue to support your local Oxfam shop, even if its doors are closed.

We still want the things you don’t! As we all use this time to declutter, please continue to support your local Oxfam:

·       Save your donations and drop them in when we’re back up and running – for all of us, hopefully this will be sooner rather than later

You can also help us continue to raise vital funds:

·       Make a one-off donation or setup a monthly one if you can

·       Set up a Facebook fundraiser in solidarity with your local Oxfam shop – and help continue its crucial fundraising work!

Our shops play a central role in supporting our emergency appeals. Right now, we are trying to raise funds for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar – the largest refugee camp in the world. As we battle COVID-19, they are preparing to enter into monsoon season, which brings with it a serious threat to life and infrastructure in the camp. Our gravest concern is the destruction of sanitation facilities which are vital to halt the spread of deadly diseases such as COVID-19.

Our shops have been a part of local communities as far back as 1956. That is 64 years of providing people with affordable and sustainable clothing, books, furniture and more.

Thank you for all of the ways you’ve supported us over those 64 years from donating and shopping to volunteering your time and talent.

I hope you will stand with us now and understand why we are asking for your continued support through this global storm that we are all weathering together.

COVID-19: Why we need your support now more than ever

We just launched an appeal to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar survive monsoon season – the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in that region of Bangladesh.

As appeal letters dropped through the letterboxes of our loyal supporters, some 900,000 people living in the biggest refugee settlement in the world began to panic about how they could practice social distancing and life-saving hygiene practises in a makeshift home without adequate sanitation and health infrastructure.

This is the news we dreaded – and it’s why we made the decision to still launch our appeal at a time of unprecedented challenge at home and abroad as COVID-19 threatens us all. For people living in cramped, flimsy shelters in over-crowded camps, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s our job to let our supporters know how they can help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those facing poverty and disaster beyond our imagination.

We usually tell these stories and how you can be part of them face-to-face, through our fundraising activities and our network of shops in communities across the country. To protect us all, we can’t do that right now and we’re are urgently appealing for your help. 

We need your generous support now more than ever.

In addition to helping Rohingya refugees prepare for monsoon season, we’ll be helping them and communities all over the world to stay safe and healthy as COVID-19 threatens the poorest and most vulnerable.

Please donate what you can today:

Bangladesh: A treacherous journey for Rohingya people

From clean water and sanitation to advocacy, Oxfam is assisting hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar who fled the brutal attacks of 2017.

It's has been almost three years since over 700,000 Rohingya from Myanmar became refugees. Targeted by the military with mass violence that the United Nations describes as ethnic cleansing, they left behind everything they owned. They carried with them a heavy burden: the memories of atrocities carried out against their loved ones, and of the harsh abuse that they themselves endured. The emotional wounds are still fresh; ask a refugee a question about the present day, and you will likely hear a haunting personal story of what happened in August 2017.

Rohingya refugee woman in Cox's Bazar
Khalida lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she was driven from her country by Myanmar's military. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

"We saw with our own eyes people tied up and thrown into police trucks," says a woman who lives in a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar. "Blood flowed from the trucks like water."

"They killed my brothers and raped my sisters and mother and killed them," says Abu Musa, another refugee. "We get up every morning and wonder how we can go on."

Yet, somehow the life of the community does go on. The camps bustle with activity, with roadside market vendors selling everything from vegetables to pots and pans to brightly coloured clothing. Trucks arrive with goods and make their way slowly along brick roads, crafted by hand to survive the monsoon rains. Children surround new visitors, eager to interact and play. Someone tells a joke, and someone laughs.

Protecting lives, rights and dignity

When refugees began their exodus in 2017, protecting lives was Oxfam's priority. The camps that formed to accommodate the refugees quickly became overcrowded, creating perfect conditions for the outreak and spread of deadly diseases. With your support, we helped prevent a public health emergency by constructing latrines, providing access to clean water and distributing hygiene materials, such as soap and sanitary pads. Over time, we constructed the largest sewage treatment plant in a refugee camp anywhere in the world.

"Before learning about hygiene from Oxfam, I didn't know how to use soap properly," says a young woman named Saitara. "I didn't know about washing hands before eating and cooking. Now, I'm cooking food safely."

"After Oxfam's work," says a mother of three named Hamida, "our children didn't get diarrhea so often.

Safety - particularly for vulnerable groups like women and girls - was also a key priority, so Oxfam installed solar-powered lights around the camp and provided families with solar torches and lanterns to help residents move around safely at night.

"We use the solar torches to get to the latrine at night or to find a lost child," says Saitara, "or to help people who are elderly or disabled."

To ensure people had access to food, clothing and other essentials, we distributed vouchers that families could use in local markets.

Thanks to your support, we're also helping to create safe spaces for women to gather and make their voices heard, and through women's groups and musical performances, we're working with local organisations and communities to raise awareness about wider issues, such as early marriage, gender-based violence and harmful traditional gender roles.

The influx of refugees has been hard on the host communities. Among other things, already-low wages have dropped, while the cost of living has risen. To help address local poverty and ease tensions between hosts and refugees, Oxfam has employed more than 1,800 Bangladeshis in construction projects, such as building roads, schools and water points.

Rohingya refugee woman signs her name for the first time
Saitara signs her name. She had never touched a pen before Oxfam showed her how to sign her name. "I used to feel small, but after learning to sign my name, I felt bigger," she says. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

We also worked with partners to improve livelihoods of particularly vulnerable families in the host communities. For example, when pirates attacked the vessel of fisherman Nurul Hoque, they blinded him, and he was reduced to begging on the street. Oxfam partner Mukti stepped in, providing funds and business training that enabled his familiy to start up a roadside food stall.

"Now, we eat three times a day," says his wife, Mumtaz Begum, "and we have bought four goats."

In all, Oxfam and our partners have reached more than 360,000 people with aid.

Refugees experience fear and longing

But nothing we do will make the camps feel like home, and despite the violent past, the refugees' longing for their homeland is palpable.

They're deeply grateful to the government and host communities of Bangladesh for providing them with shelter and safety, but they don't want to live out their lives as refugees.

"We used to be farmers. We grew rice and chilies, and our sons fished. My husband had a snack stall," says Hamida. "We want that life back." Many others say the same, but always with a caveat.

"We can't leave until we have a promise. We need security and citizenship in our country," says Faruk, who has a young daughter. "Our people have been killed before, and we don't want to face that again."

Oxfam is committed to doing more than simply provide aid in the camps. With advocacy staff positioned in capital cities around the world, we're urging governments to put pressure on Myanmar to provide the Rohingya people with the rights and citizenship they've been denied for decades, and with a chance to return to their home country when the refugees themselves deem it safe.

In the meantime, the Rohingya people are doing their best to recover, and to hang onto their hopes and dreams.

"We're asking for our country back," says a woman named Azara. "And for a chance to lie there in peace."

Your help is urgently needed this monsoon season. Please send essential preparation kits to refugees like Azara, Saitara and Khalida today.

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