The initial idea that COVID-19 would make everyone equal quickly was misplaced, especially on Lesvos. While race, nationality, gender, and wealth do not physically determine who is most likely to be infected with COVID-19, these factors starkly influence how comfortably and efficiently people can protect themselves from or suffer an infection with the virus.
On Lesvos, the contrast between peoples’ realities during the corona crisis could not have been more drastic. European citizens worried about the constraints of their privileges and limited medical equipment and health care access. These fears are, of course, reasonable. However, Europeans’ ‘existential fears’ acquire a whole new connotation when compared to the ‘existential fears’ of migrants on Lesvos. Neither the infrastructure of Moria nor any other camp on Lesvos could withstand a COVID-19 outbreak.
The structural inequality between migrants and European citizens made obvious by the different treatment upon their arrival in Greece during the corona crisis. While the exact measures changed throughout the first half of 2020, European tourists were always provided with a private hotel room, three meals a day, and medical support on the government’s expense while waiting for their COVID-19 test results. Tourists could further travel to their final destinations and were trusted to self-quarantine, not forced to by the authorities. Migrants arriving in the north of Lesvos from April onwards were kept in the closed quarantine camp of ‘Megala Therma’. Within the past weeks, further quarantine camps were established on beaches on the north shore.
Migrant camps, in their very nature, rescind peoples’ freedoms and make them unequal. However, these features were naturally and actively expanded during the corona crisis. On the one hand, the structure of permanent camps like Moria does not allow people to isolate themselves to prevent an infection with COVID-19: 15,000 migrants sharing facilities built for 3000 do not allow for privacy. Further, the already insufficient medical treatment of migrants and the scarcity of water and other hygienic measurements could not accommodate a COVID-19 outbreak within the camp.
Instead of dissolving permanent camps and allowing migrants to protect themselves from COVID-19, the local authorities established quarantine camps to prevent the virus reaching the permanent camps. Initially, these quarantine camps were claimed to serve as a temporary abode in which newly arriving migrants were tested for COVID-19 and would have to absolve a 14-day quarantine before being transferred to a permanent migrant camp. While the establishment of further camps worsens the problematic and inhumane treatment of migrants, preventing the spread of COVID-19, especially in migrant camps, is desirable.
Thus, while the way the local authorities chose to allegedly prevent the spread of COVID-19 in permanent camps has big structural deficits, its implementation could have hardly been worse.
Instead of giving newly arriving migrants the chance quarantine for 14 days in humane living conditions with a sufficient supply of food, water, and access to medical treatment, the local authorities rather facilitated the spread of COVID-19 within the quarantine camps.
A woman who was among the first people to be put into the closed quarantine camp ‘Megala Therma’ told us about the situation within the camp: “Upon our arrival, we were told that we had to stay in the quarantine camp for 14 days and would be transferred to Moria after. However, we stayed in ‘Megala Therma’ for a total of 35 days without being further informed when we would be transferred to Moria. […] On the day of arrival, we were tested for COVID-19. From our group, everyone tested negative. Other migrant groups who arrived later were also tested for COVID-19. However, the authorities did not separate the groups from one another, not even while waiting for the test results. Neither was there the possibility to isolate oneself out of one’s own initiative.”
About the general supply and treatment, our respondent said that “People were always together. At one point, there were five positive cases of COVID-19 within Megala Therma. However, there were no doctors present nor did we have access to medicine. […] We were provided with one meal a day and one bottle of water. Since the camp is in the middle of nowhere, we could not buy additional food, water, or medicine.”
Our respondent was only one of the current 162 who are placed at ‘Megala Therma’. By now, there are four other quarantine camps set up on the beaches where migrants landed in the past weeks: one in Tsonia (38 people), one in Mantamados (28 people), and two in front of the camp in 'Megala Therma' (11 & 28 people). While the living and hygienic situation in ‘Megala Therma’is by no means adequate, these conditions are even more provisional in the beach camps. While the current inhabitants of the beach camps were forced to stay at the beach, the authorities sometimes took several days to install tents and portable toilets.
The local authorities on Lesvos used the corona crisis as an excuse to not only put permanent camps like Moria under lockdown, but to establish further closed camps. The living and hygienic conditions in the quarantine camps are catastrophic and trigger COVID-19 outbreaks. It is contemptible to force migrants to live in these deleterious situations especially during a pandemic. We demand proper provision for migrants including a sufficient supply of food and water, proper housing, adequate medical treatment, and the possibility for self-isolation. We demand the authorities to not be hypocrites and let the quarantine camps become what they allegedly wanted the permanent camps to prevent from: COVID-19 hotspots.
Preventing the spread of and providing treatment for COVID-19 is not a question of possibility but a question of will. Treat migrants in a humane manner!