DZALEKA IS JUST ONE of hundreds of refugee camps typifying the outsized risk. Situated on 500 acres of what was once a national prison, the camp is now home to more than 48,000 refugees—nearly five times the capacity it was built for. The camp was set up in 1994 to assist refugees fleeing war, genocide, and violence in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It now includes refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia.
The coronavirus threat to those living in Dzaleka is “alarming,” said Innocent Magambi, founder of There is Hope, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in the camp to provide vocational training, education, and material needs. International aid groups, including the United Nations’ World Food Program, have cut food rations by more than half in the past year at Dzaleka, he said, and many refugees had started going into the community to farm. With growing restrictions over the coronavirus threat, they are no longer allowed to move freely.
Magambi, who visited the camp on April 23, told WORLD by phone the next day that along with the spread of disease, he is worried about basic supplies for families to stay healthy. One widowed mother of five children with disabilities sustains the family by selling tomatoes and vegetables. Another single mother of four living with HIV/AIDS also trades small goods as a source of livelihood.
“When people there think about it, it’s just like we’re just waiting to die,” said Magambi.
With the virus now gaining momentum on the continent, Malawian officials along with aid workers like Magambi met with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to organize a COVID-19 response. They agreed to build at Dzaleka the reception center and a quarantine site, which includes two tents with 30 beds each for refugees who may fall sick with the virus. But the camp does not yet have test kits, even while health officials confirm suspected cases in nearby Lilongwe.
Testing for the coronavirus, not surprisingly, is emerging as the greatest challenge for combating rapid outbreaks. Every refugee aid agency WORLD spoke to cited it as its leading challenge. Even in areas where the World Health Organization (WHO) or private donors have supplied test kits, broken infrastructure and Ministry of Health bureaucracies are keeping them bottled up. Testing, too, is only as good as the ability to process test results in a nearby lab.
Magambi, like other providers, is also taking matters into his own hands, improvising amid dysfunctional healthcare systems and poor logistics. With his team, he said, he set up a group chat on WhatsApp, where he answers refugees’ questions on receiving assistance and sends details about the virus and its spread to combat misinformation.
Contributions from a U.S. donor helped to fund emergency food packs of beans, maize, and oil, allowing There is Hope to assist 1,500 households in Dzaleka. Magambi hopes to scale that effort up to 3,000, with a focus on widows, the elderly, and people with chronic illnesses.
The nonprofit’s refugee-run tailoring and craft center also started to sew face masks. In three weeks, he said, they made 16,000 masks and had to employ 50 more refugees to join their initial team of 38.
Dzaleka is one of the five refugee camps Magambi has lived in since he was born to refugee parents in a camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1993. “When I think about it as someone who has lived there, worked there, I really can’t see how people will cope,” he said.