SEATTLE — The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has developed an innovative way to track COVID-19 cases in Ecuador. By enlisting the help of the refugee community, the UNHCR has been able to identify more than 250 cases of coronavirus in remote regions.
Ecuador’s Refugee Population
Nearly 70,000 recognized refugees live in Ecuador, although the real number is likely much greater. The vast majority of these are from Colombia, which has endured decades of conflict between guerrilla groups and government forces. Colombian refugees have sought safety in many surrounding nations but Ecuador currently is home to the most.
Ecuador is unique in its region for its legal recognition of many of its refugees, giving them significant access to necessary services and protections. It has also used media to address public concerns about the rising refugee population. In 2019, UNHCR produced and disseminated 15 videos to improve Ecuador’s national perception of refugees in the country.
Ecuador allows anyone, regardless of their citizenship status, to receive healthcare services. However, many refugees live in remote or rural areas where both access to healthcare and information is scarce. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this may make refugees more susceptible to unreported or undiagnosed infections.
COVID-19 in Ecuador
There have been more than 113,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ecuador, making it one of the most affected countries in Latin America. Officials have counted more than 500 cases among refugees and migrants so far, demonstrating that although outbreaks among refugees are relatively low, they certainly contribute to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Ecuador.
Although Ecuador initially instated strict guidelines with sizeable legal punishments for rulebreakers, it has since relaxed these restrictions, leading to an increase in the national caseload. Ecuador must continue to carefully monitor its cases, particularly in regions where access to healthcare may be limited.
The Community Epidemiological Surveillance System (CESS)
UNHCR’s innovative Community Epidemiological Surveillance System (CESS) has been instrumental in monitoring and identifying suspected COVID-19 cases in Ecuador. So far, the program has been implemented for over a month and has provided epidemiological surveillance training to six community organizations led by refugees across the nation.
The CESS connects “partners, community organizations and civil society” to better track COVID-19 cases among refugees, which has proven difficult for the government because of some migrants’ lack of legal status and because refugees are more likely to relocate more often within the country.
The CESS is run by both UNHCR staff and several local humanitarian organizations. They use a myriad of strategies such as home visits, telephone hotlines and more to identify COVID-19 cases among refugees. These findings are then logged privately before it is shared with Ecuador’s national health authorities. Not only does this data track cases of coronavirus, but it also records important information such as individuals’ living situations and the ability to access public healthcare services.
The UNHCR has also called for more international attention to the urgency of COVID-19 outbreaks in these communities. Although the UNHCR is calling for more assistance, it has implemented this program in several other nations across the region, hoping to reach as many rural communities as possible. The CESS can and will continue to be invaluable in the difficult process of tracking COVID-19 cases among refugees and in isolated regions.
– Leina Gabra