First virus case recorded in refugee camp in Lebanon

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FILE - In this June 20, 2017 file photo, Syrian refugee children play outside their family tents at a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern city of Baalbek, Lebanon. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Wednesday, April 22, 20202, that a Palestinian woman from Syria living in a refugee camp in Lebanon has become the first refugee to test positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

BEIRUT – A Palestinian woman from Syria has become the first refugee living in a camp in Lebanon to test positive for the coronavirus, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said Wednesday. It triggered a spate of testing to determine whether other residents have been infected.

The agency, UNRWA, said the woman resided in the only Palestinian camp in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa region. It said all necessary measures had been taken and the patient was transferred to the government-run Rafik Hariri Hospital in Beirut.

Lebanon, a country of 5 million, hosts tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, most of them living in squalid camps that resemble jungles of concrete. They have no access to public services, limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership. The country is also home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees and other Syrians who are residents.

The tiny country has recorded 22 deaths from among 682 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. They include one Palestinian who lives outside a camp and three Syrian residents who have tested positive.

Wednesday’s announcement was the first involving a refugee living inside one of the camps.

“There is always concern of an outbreak in a crowded place like the camps ... but we hope that the measures we are taking with the ministry and others concerned will help us avoid an outbreak,” said Huda Samra, communications advisor for UNRWA in Lebanon. Up to 3,000 people live in the Wavel camp in the city of Baalbek, known locally as the Jalil, or Galilee camp.

Samra said a team comprising UNRWA members and Rafik Hariri hospital staff tested 146 people at the camp Wednesday, including all those who had contacts with the woman in recent days. She said the agency would pay all testing and hospital expenses.

Lack of testing has stoked fears among millions of displaced people around the world packed into refugee camps and informal settlements. Wednesday's announcement sparked concern in Lebanon, where human rights groups have long decried discriminatory measures against refugees.