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Jordan’s Tight Covid-19 Lockdown Also Squeezes Vulnerable Populations

Jordan’s swift and near total lockdown has kept Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in check. But it has also put enormous pressure on the kingdom’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Getting enough to eat has become a daily struggle for many refugees, and accessing education is difficult for those without laptops, tablets or access to the Internet. Most households have one smartphone at best.

“The difficulty is when you have a household with five kids, one phone, and a limited Internet package,” says Tamara Alrifai, a spokesperson for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which administers support for Palestinian refugees in Jordan and elsewhere.

The interest of many international donors in Jordan has recently focused on post-educational economic empowerment, such as job skills, and few have shifted back to the pressing humanitarian or educational needs that have been highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The kingdom enacted a stringent country-wide lockdown on March 21. Earlier that week it had already closed borders, schools, public venues, businesses and offices. Residents are only allowed to leave the house between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and have to go on foot to local pharmacies and food shops. The policy has kept the incidence of Covid-19 low—there were only 397 cases reported as of April 14, and no cases have been detected in refugee camps so far. But the lockdown has also taken a toll on the economy, which was already struggling with high unemployment and public debt. (See a related article, “Jordan Data Suggests Universities Contribute to Unemployment.”)

Hardships for Refugees Get Worse

Jordan is home to over two million Palestinian refugees, residing in camps administered by UNRWA; about 650,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom live in camps but many of whom reside in Amman and other Jordanian cities; as well as refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq.

Refugees have been particularly hard-hit by the lockdown. All movement out of camps has been halted, and the informal and daily work that refugees were most likely to have, such as in restaurants and on construction sites, has ground to a halt.

In surveys conducted by international nongovernmental organizations, the majority of refugee families who had a source of income reported losing it due to the shutdown. Refugees reported skipping meals, pawning possessions and putting off paying bills to cope. A CARE survey of 267 households found that 90 percent of urban respondents said they could not cover basic needs.

“We’re 100 percent behind the government, which moved decisively when the first cases of Covid-19 were recorded and has shown strong leadership since.”

Alexander Kouttab
 of the Norwegian Refugee Council

In refugee camps, bakeries, supermarkets and medical facilities are open, but residents report that some food items are missing and prices have increased. In the CARE survey, residents of Al Azraq camp reported needing more cash assistance and access to water, medicine and sanitary equipment. In a population already traumatized from experiencing war and displacement, surveys have found anxiety levels are high.

International organizations working with refugees are now following up on survey results and figuring out how they can support national initiatives.

“We’re 100 percent behind the government, which moved decisively when the first cases of Covid-19 were recorded and has shown strong leadership since,” said Alexander Kouttab of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “There are economic challenges created by a prolonged curfew, but also capacity constraints related to Jordan’s health care infrastructure, which means the government is faced with hard choices moving forward. But we need to ensure that the most vulnerable get the support they most need.”

Students at an UNRWA school in the Palestinian refugee camp of Baqa’a, Jordan (Photo: UNRWA).
Students at an UNRWA school in the Palestinian refugee camp of Baqa’a, Jordan (Photo: UNRWA).

The Difficult Switch to Online Learning 

Jordan’s Ministry of Education has launched an online portal and television channel to deliver long-distance learning to all students, including refugees. But transitioning to online education is not easy. According to a recent poll, 55 percent of students have made use of the online portal, while 50 percent of students reported encountering technical difficulties.

“The ministries of education and higher education have been very responsive—they want to solve the immediate problem but also to invest in the longer term by building sustainable solutions,” says Emma Bonar, a youth specialist with the Norwegian Refugee Council. “The silver lining in the longer term could be that these online learning solutions could   potentially reach those young people who were out of school previously.”

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Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, she said, high percentages of Syrian adolescents were out of school. Last year about 70 percent of Syrian youth were enrolled in elementary education and 25 percent were enrolled secondary schools.

Because most young people in the camps only have Internet access through a smartphone, the Norwegian Refugee Council re-tooled a vocational program it was running for 400 students so as to be able to deliver it largely over WhatsApp. The solution is temporary and not perfect, says Bonar, and is no substitute for in-person learning, but it was the best way to continue the program while taking into account the students’ needs and means. A flash survey of 290 young people aged 15 to 32 done by the council found that 94 percent of them were using smart phones to access the Internet. But 66 percent reported difficulty accessing the Internet due to its cost or poor connections. 

With Palestinian children, UNRWA teachers have been making use of WhatsApp groups and other online platforms, says Oroba Labadi, chief of the UNRWA Field Education Office. When it comes to supporting online education, the agency has experience due to the emergency education programs it developed during the Syrian war and during Israeli assaults on Gaza. This has allowed teachers and students to quickly adopt forms of distance learning, Labadi says.

But “the bottleneck is having a device and sustainable, continued access to the Internet. We can’t talk about online learning without these two conditions being available. Then there is the material, teacher preparedness, monitoring.” In many crowded households where refugees live it can also be “very challenging to find a quiet corner to follow up with the teacher.”

The vast majority of families do not own a laptop or tablet computer and have limited Internet bundles on smartphones.

Partly to address such problems, the Jordanian government has made its education website free to access; and the hours of electricity provision have been lengthened in camps to allow students more time to study.

“It’s more difficult now to convince donors we need to support everyone.”

Tamara Alrifai
 A spokesperson for United Nations Relief and Works Agency

Mohamad Alasmar, the advocacy, media and communications director for the Middle East office of Save the Children, says his organization is also concerned with the impact of curfews, the lockdown and school closures on children and particularly on girls. Girls are more apt to be confined even more at home, he said, and to face domestic violence and ultimately risk dropping out of school altogether. (See a related article, “Coronavirus School Closings Around the World Will Hit Girls the Hardest.”)

It is also hard for families to focus on education when they are in a crisis. “For more than a month they can’t earn their bread,” says Labadi. So when it comes to education, “Some say: I am willing, but it’s not the priority.”

This is a particular challenge for UNRWA, says Alrifai, given the agency’s recent financial crisis and what she argues is dwindling international concern with the plight of Palestinian refugees. At a time when all refugees are in need of assistance, “It’s more difficult now to convince donors we need to support everyone,” she says. (See a related article, “U.N. Scrambles to Keep Schools for Palestinians Open.”)

Charities Seek Out Those in Need

The Jordanian government has designated several national charities to help carry out its national aid program, which it says will benefit 350,000 needy households. Other nongovernmental organizations are not authorized to operate outside of refugee camps. Many have had to suspend services they provided to refugees living in host communities, or to find temporary work-arounds. An organization called the the Collateral Repair Project, for example, is remotely arranging for credit at markets for families, since it can’t print food vouchers.

Alasmar, of Save the Children, notes that refugees in need of assistance who live outside of camps risk becoming invisible to organizations who want to help them.

“When you cannot go do your assessments, your community engagement, the risk is they drop off the radar—and then who takes care of them?” he asks.

“The processes to support people during the curfew are being put in place and then problems are being ironed out,” says Kouttab of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “But now a much larger number of people are going to be needing support for very essential services. The question is knowing who they are, where they are, and how many they are. And the issue is distribution. How do your reduce movement and at the same time make sure everyone gets assistance? It’s a gargantuan task.”

Ramping up widespread basic assistance is what all the organizations in the field agree is necessary. As is investing in health and education infrastructure from which all can benefit in the future.

Emma Bonar, the education specialist says: “Let’s use this as an opportunity to see if and how we can engage the most marginalized and vulnerable out-of-school adolescents once the crisis is over.”


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