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Coronavirus could ravage vulnerable populations in war zones, say experts

Fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic is difficult enough in developed countries and regions like the U.S. and Western Europe. In areas with active conflicts and large populations of refugees, the challenge is even harder, and the situations are growing more dire. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to David Miliband, of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian relief organization.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fighting the coronavirus is hard enough in developed countries like the United States and Western Europe.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, in areas with active conflicts and large refugee populations, the problems are even harder, and growing more dire.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Borders don't stop viruses and pandemics don't stop war. And the victims of war have no protection.

    In Northwest Syria, the war is older than the children. Pediatrician Omar Hammoud tries to ease his displaced patients' worries. But he is worried.

  • Omar Hammoud (through translator):

    The truth is, if the illness spreads, it will be very hard to contain. You see the way things are here in the camp? People are close to each other, one tent next to the other.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    These Syrian refugees in Lebanon don't have space to practice social distancing. They don't have enough water to drink, let alone wash their hands. They don't have money to buy soap.

  • Mohammed al-Bakhas (through translator):

    They gave us awareness sessions and one bar of soap each, but this is not enough. We ask for disinfectants, sanitizers for the camp. We ask the United Nations. We call upon the world to help us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The world has 25 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced. Nowhere are they more vulnerable than war zones, where efforts to fight the virus are patchy.

    In Idlib, Syria, local workers hand out COVID-19 pamphlets. But the local medical leader tells "PBS NewsHour" there are only 200 intensive care beds for the entire region.

    In Yemen, women weave masks for what health officials call COVID-19's inevitable arrival. But half of all medical facilities aren't fully functional, and medicine, equipment, and testing are limited.

    In Libya, there's a state of emergency, and this cell phone video shows fire trucks on all sides spraying disinfectant.

    In Afghanistan, Ministry of Health workers disinfect government offices. But whole swathes of the country are left uncovered.

  • Woman:

    Welcome to this virtual press conference.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That helped inspire today's global cease-fire call by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    Silence the guns, stop the artillery, end the airstrikes. It is crucial to help create corridors for lifesaving aid, to open precious windows for diplomacy, to bring hope to places among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk about this more, I'm joined by David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

    Mr. Miliband, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    I'm isolated from the control room and from the studio. You're isolating at home.

    And I want to talk to you about a statement you made about how COVID-19 can thrive in war zones. Just how vulnerable are the refugees, are the internally displaced, are the people who are living in these countries where the health care systems have been broken by war?

  • David Miliband:

    Well, your excellent report showed exactly the challenge.

    It is tough enough to beat COVID when you have got the best public health systems in the world. We're talking about places where there isn't the handwashing facilities, there aren't the health facilities.

    And in Northwest Syria, where you featured and where there are 400 International Rescue Committee staff working today, 85 health systems — 85 health facilities have been bombed by its own government and their Russian supporters.

    So you see that conflict is standing in the way of preventing a public health emergency. It's thanks to the NGO workers that are on the ground that we have got a fighting chance of using a bit of time to prevent the spread of the disease.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have got a $30 million campaign out to try and help some of these people around the world suffering from COVID-19.

    But the disease not only threatens these countries that we are talking about, Syria and elsewhere. It's also threatening, as we have been discussing, places like the United States, places in the West that are usually the humanitarian givers, usually the humanitarian donors.

    How much of this is going to depress some of those donations and restrict humanitarian assistance?

  • David Miliband:

    Well, our argument is that it would be the utter folly to use this crisis as a moment to cut international aid.

    It makes far more sense to recognize that COVID-19 proves that we're an interconnected world, and that the only way to stamp out this crisis is to treat it everywhere. We have got the gift of time, in that most of the war zones of the world haven't yet been hit by the full force of COVID-19.

    And we need to use that time to install the handwashing stations, to make sure there is the triaging of people, to make sure that those who are showing temperature are separated, and to make sure that we get the information out by trusted people on the ground.

    That's what our $30 million appeal is designed to do. We have got 13,000 aid workers around the world and 17,000 volunteers who support them ready to spring into action. But we need that support to make sure that this disease is stamped out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You're absolutely right. This is not universal across these war zones. Yemen, for example, doesn't have a single case, although officials there do expect cases to increase.

    We saw the U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, call for a global cease-fire. ISIS has suggested that its fighters shouldn't go to Europe. The European Union has said, don't send any weapons into Libya. Is there actually a chance for some of the violence across the world to decrease?

  • David Miliband:

    Well, the last time I came on this program, I bemoaned the crisis of diplomacy that was allowing civil wars to flourish, to extend in time, and to claim more civilian lives.

    This is the moment for the world to recognize that the unsolved problems of globalization, the unsolved problems of refugees, of war, of health systems that are not in place, really need to be addressed.

    And, at the moment, it's the NGOs, the non-governmental organizations, that are on the front line trying to make a difference. Our call is that the world shouldn't just wake up to the problems immediately in front of it. The developed world has got to recognize that this is an international crisis and needs to be treated as such.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Mr. Miliband, I only have about 30 seconds left, but I think this is vital, and you suggested it before. But let me just ask you again.

    So many Americans, so many people watching this are scared about their families, their communities, their country. What is your message to them about why they should care about these people thousands of miles away who are already so vulnerable?

  • David Miliband:

    I share the fears of all Americans who are worried about their own health care and their own health.

    But what I say to them is, remember that this country was built on a big heart, but also a sound head, straight thinking. And straight thinking tells you that this disease needs to be beaten everywhere if we're all to be safe. It's an appeal to head and to heart.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, thank you very much.

  • David Miliband:

    Thank you very much, indeed.

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