Women-led responses to COVID-19: Report from Beirut, Lebanon
Women's organisations and movements around the world report COVID-19 and the urgent action they're taking to protect their communities
Dr Olfat Mahmoud leads the Palestinian Women’s Humanitarian Organisation in Lebanon. The organisation works in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, focussed on ensuring the wellbeing of women, children, people with disabilities and those with severe health problems through targeted service provision, as well as advocacy for their rights.
Olfat reports from Beirut, where she is working from home.
Right now, people in Lebanon are really scared – and especially in the refugee camps because they’re so crowded. The size of the camp we work in is one square metre – the population is over 50,000. Anything you say in your own house, your neighbours can hear. It’s really overcrowded. It makes it really, really difficult. If someone gets infected, there is no way they can self-isolate.
In Lebanon, every day there are new cases. Lebanon is small – 6 million people. Right now, there are 494 cases and the number is increasing quickly. 16 people have died. Every day we hear about 30 to 40 new cases.
There haven’t been any cases in the camp so far, thank God. People in the camps have isolated themselves. They are not leaving the camp so that they don’t get the virus.
People are really terrified – children are really afraid. We hear lots of stories that children are not sleeping well, their behaviour has changed.
We have been providing the refugees we support with information – we have a hotline, and we use Facebook and Whatsapp so they can contact us. We send children games over Whatsapp. But not all families have printers to print games out for stories – they usually go the bookshop but most are closed. I think it’s really important that we are able to distribute colouring books, paintings, and so forth, so that children can stay at home.
We need to keep trying, trying to support the people, being there.
We didn’t close our office in the camp – just not all staff will be on duty. People who don’t have a phone can come to the office and talk to us.
Anyone here in Lebanon who works on daily payments is not earning any money. A taxi driver was fined a huge amount of money for breaching curfew, so he burnt the car using steriliser because he was so angry. We are hearing lots of stories like this.
People in the camps are not formally employed as it’s against the law, unless it’s with the UN. Most people work in construction for daily wages. This is the third week we have been on lockdown so people in the camps aren’t earning any money – and now they are starting to go hungry as they don’t have income.
We have been contacting our partners and our donors, trying to find out if they can give us some money – but as this is a global problem they don’t have enough for such work.
One organisation sent us money and the local pharmacy organised hygiene products for us to distribute. So we have some, but not enough for everybody.
Right now though, we are distributing as many hygiene kits as we can – disinfectant, hand gel, and so forth.
We have lots of volunteers who are specially clothed, who take the kits and leave them at the doors of homes. The volunteers are refugees themselves.
More support is needed. Locking down needs to be accompanied with social support. People need money to support their families. Before the coronavirus we had the financial crisis – the lira lost its value, the cost of rice went up even more. Coronavirus came at a very difficult time in Lebanon.
One of our volunteers shared that she dropped a hygiene kit to a home in the camp. The woman in the house opened the door and saw the hygiene kit and looked at the volunteer with tears in her eyes. “What can I do with this?” she said. “I can’t feed my children with this.”
People in the camp have chronic illnesses. They need their medication on time. They don’t have money - how will they get their medication? There is a clinic where people can access medication but the medicines they have are limited.
How will people with specific needs cope in these conditions? People with high blood pressure need to be eating in a specific way and they can’t access that food. This puts extra pressure on women, who are in caregiving roles and look after people when they are sick.
And on top of all that, in Lebanon, a lot of the time we don’t have electricity. When you don’t have electricity, you can’t use wifi, there is no social media. So for refugees in the camps – how does the mother keep the child in the home with no TV? So we try to remind women of how they can entertain children with no money – things they can do indoors.
Women play a big role in that because they bring up the children. Men sleep, they smoke, while women take care of the children. It’s a big responsibility for women. I know it’s hard for men not to work and to bring money to the family – its’ frustrating. But it’s harder for women because she goes to the kitchen and there is no food, so she is under extreme stress.
More violence will exist. Men are doing nothing, they can’t leave the house, so they will create a problem. I believe there will be more violence.
NGOs are cooperating here – we meet and distribute tasks so that we don’t duplicate our work and we ensure that families don’t receive double. In the camp, we have local NGOs who meet together in working groups.
We are all human beings – and a small, very tiny virus – look how it affected the whole world. We should make solidarity with each other. We should back each other.
We should think of others too. We should think of those who don’t have a safe house, who don’t have a safe environment. Think of refugees. We should do what we can. Even with very little, we can still do a lot.
The Feminist Humanitarian Network is working to facilitate shared learning and support amongst its members on the frontlines of the response to COVID-19 in countries around the world. To join or support the FHN, please email firstname.lastname@example.org