Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees. The country is also host to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, most of them living in squalid camps with no access to public services.

A Syrian refugee woman puts a face mask on a boy as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, in Al Wazzani area, in southern Lebanon, March 14, 2020
A Syrian refugee woman puts a face mask on a boy as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, in Al Wazzani area, in southern Lebanon, March 14, 2020 (Reuters)

A Palestinian woman from Syria has become the first refugee living in a camp in Lebanon to test positive for the coronavirus, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and the Lebanese health minister said on Wednesday.

It triggered a spate of testing to determine whether other residents have been infected.

UNRWA, said the woman resided in Wavel, the only Palestinian camp in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa region. 

It said all necessary measures have been taken and the patient was transferred to the government-run Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut, adding that the agency will cover the cost of her treatment.

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees and other Syrians who are residents. It is also host to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, most of them living in squalid camps with no access to public services, with limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership.

They have no access to public services, limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership. 

The tiny country has recorded 22 deaths from among 682 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. 

They include one Palestinian who lives outside a camp, and three Syrian residents who have tested positive. Wednesday’s announcement was the first involving a refugee living inside a camp.

Lack of testing

Lack of testing has stoked fears among millions of displaced people around the world, who are generally packed into refugee camps and informal settlements. Wednesday's announcement sparked concern in Lebanon, where human rights groups have long decried discriminatory measures against refugees.

Most people who become infected experience mild to moderate symptoms. 

But the virus can cause severe illness and lead to death, particularly among older people and those with underlying health problems. It is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy.

UNRWA said it will take a team from the Rafik Hariri hospital to the Wavel camp in the Bekaa's Baalbek region, to carry out tests.

Huda Samra, communications adviser for UNRWA in Lebanon, said that although no screening was taking place among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, virus testing was being carried out on refugees showing symptoms of Covid-19. She said the agency was committed to paying all testing and hospital expenses.

“The agency is doing everything necessary to provide the required assistance to the patient’s family to allow them to isolate themselves with all the arrangements required and to secure the necessary needs,” the UNRWA statement said on Wednesday.

Lebanese Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters that two teams from the ministry headed on Wednesday morning to the Bekaa Valley, one to the Baalbek General Hospital and another to Wavel camp where they will take test samples.

Refugee cases will be treated exactly like their Lebanese counterparts, the minister said, comments that were apparently in response to rights groups' questions about Lebanon's ability to provide refugees with health care.

Discriminatory restrictions

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch said at least 21 Lebanese municipalities introduced discriminatory restrictions on Syrian refugees that do not apply to Lebanese residents as part of efforts to combat Covid-19, undermining the country’s public health response.

The Baalbek region is one of the least infected districts in Lebanon, with less than five cases, according to government statistics.

Also on Wednesday, Iran reported 94 more deaths from the virus, with the death toll in the country now reaching 5,391, out of 85,996 confirmed cases. Iran is the hardest-hit country in the Mideast and has one of the world's worst outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies