Refugees in France and Greece are at special risk of contracting coronavirus as the pandemic sweeps through the entire continent of Europe, to Russia and beyond.
– NGOs warn infections in migrant camps “may get out of control”
‘People not Walls’, a coalition of British and French NGOs working for migrants and refugees on both sides of the English Channel, warned last week that it was “extremely concerned about the risk of coronavirus spreading through the migrant population of Calais and the North of France and the risks which this entails for others”.
“The flow of migrants converging on the Calais region, where they survive in precarious conditions, poses the question of a growing health risk”, the NGOs deplored.
They added that the number of confirmed cases in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region – along with the refugees’ unsanitary conditions of cold, humidity, stress, fatigue, overcrowding and a lack of clean, dry clothing – was cause for worry “that the number of viral infections may get out of control”.
A similar warning came out too last week from Greece, where ever since a native Greek returning from Israel tested positive for the virus, there have been serious fears that the tens of thousands of mostly Syrian refugees on the Aegean Islands – some 20,000 in the Moria camp on Lesbos alone – would also contract the disease, in a situation in which many NGOs have been forced to cut services because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The little piece of good news at least on the refugee front in Greece is that five EU countries – Germany, France, Portugal, Finland and Luxembourg – have agreed to take in up to 1,500 unaccompanied refugee minors trapped on the country’s land and sea borders, a number Church and other human rights groups in Germany called, however, “far too low”.
That decision to welcome the refugee children was followed by an EU announcement that it would offer 2,000 euros to economic migrants willing to move back home from the island camps, where Brussels admitted conditions of hygiene and sanitation are presently “totally unacceptable”.
There has, however, been no such let up on the coronavirus situation in wider Europe.
In Italy, for example, police have resorted to dispersing a group of 15 Catholics at a Rome public Mass, in a country which has imposed bans on all public gatherings after registering some 21,000 coronavirus infections and 1,500 deaths.
In Italy, too, Archbishop of Milan Mario Delpini has even turned to imploring an end to the coronavirus pandemic from the roof of his cathedral, as at least seven priests in the country died from COVID-19.
In France, meanwhile, Bishop of Angers Emmanuel Delmas tested positive for coronavirus March 15, just six days after taking part in a two-and-a-half hour meeting with Pope Francis as part of an ad limina visit to Rome along with thirty other French bishops.
The news of Delmas’ positive test came as the Catholic Church in Ireland warned that the number of services being cancelled across the island had not been seen since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, as 59 of the 70 Spanish dioceses cancelled all their public Masses as well, and as bishops from Germany to Luxembourg went into quarantine.
In Spain, the Archbishop of Barcelona, Cardinal Juan José Omella, deplored the situation in an emotional pastoral letter to the faithful at the weekend, in which he lamented that the coronavirus outbreak “has put our world in checkmate: the economy, politics, religion, public health, schools and universities… as if we were suddenly floating in the air without stepping on solid ground… [with] uncertainty, worry, anguish and fear”.
Even in Russia, where there have been 93 coronavirus infections to date, Catholic Archbishop of Moscow Paolo Pezzi was bemoaning the fact that the coronavirus crisis has shown that “despite all its achievements, science cannot solve the problems of suffering, death and evil”.
“The coronavirus is not a curse or a punishment from God”, Pezzi wrote in a message to Catholics.
“However, in these painful circumstances, God shows us that far from being omnipotent, we are fragile and vulnerable creatures. […]
“God shows us that we need one another, that we must take care of our brothers and sisters, that we must learn to live and accept God in our lives”.
The Moscow archbishop’s message of us needing each other at this time was echoed, too, in the Vatican, where the Pope’s secretary, Father Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, warned his fellow Roman priests against “behaving more like wage-earners than as pastors” during the coronavirus scare.
“I think of the people who will certainly abandon the Church, when this nightmare is over, because the Church abandoned them when they were in need”, Gaid wrote in a WhatsApp message to pastors, adding: “May it never be said: ‘I won’t go to a church that didn’t come to me when I was in need'”.