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A Syrian refugee gets checked for the covid-19 caused by the novel coronavirus, during a testing campaign organised by Lebanon's health ministry and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the southern city of Sidon, on May 28, 2020.MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s ambassador for women, peace and security says the world needs to be wary of developing “COVID tunnel vision” by failing to consider the long-term impacts of the pandemic on the most vulnerable, particularly refugee women.

Jacqueline O’Neill made the remarks during a virtual conference with refugee and women’s rights advocates Tuesday. She said that while the global pandemic response requires urgent aid to stem the spread of the virus, governments have to be equally focused on “the secondary and tertiary impacts of the crisis.”

Ms. O’Neill expressed specific concern about the impact on vulnerable girls who are unable to attend school during the pandemic, warning they could face increased risk of recruitment into extremist groups, violence at home, as well as early and forced marriage.

“These are things we’re talking about, making sure we don’t have what we call COVID tunnel vision and making sure that we’re looking at the longer-term implications which we know really can affect the most vulnerable, often women and girls,” she said.

Ms. O’Neill pointed to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which disrupted access to routine vaccinations because people didn’t want to go to health facilities and vaccine providers were focused on responding to the crisis. As a result, more than twice as many people died from measles than Ebola last year.

The conference was led by the World Refugee and Migration Council, a group of political leaders, experts and human-rights activists headed by former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Speakers included Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state who came to the United States as a refugee from Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Ms. Albright said she is concerned about a recent World Bank report, which found that the pandemic will cause emerging market economies to shrink by 2.5 per cent this year, and what the implications will be for women. She said the expected economic slowdown will negatively affect refugee women, who are already overburdened caring for others and unable to pursue their careers or education, or run for office.

“There’s such a paradox in terms of the fact that women … are the ones that are a leading force in various [refugee] camps and at the same time women are the biggest victims of what is going on in terms of the virus as well as the economy,” Ms. Albright said.

Several refugee women joined the meeting to describe how the pandemic has affected their lives. Alima Mamohamed, a Somali refugee in Kampala, said women in refugee camps are suffering as they try to juggle their jobs while supporting family, elders and people with chronic diseases, such as HIV and cancer, who are vulnerable to COVID-19. Meanwhile, they don’t have access to the sanitation required to ward off the virus.

“In this time of this coronavirus ... people are saying ‘sanitizer, sanitizer, water, water.' We don’t even have water in refugee camps to wash hands,” Ms. Mamohamed said.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said COVID-19 has not fully hit developing countries but modelling “paints a very stark picture.” He said Canada will continue to provide support to refugee camps. To date, the Canadian government has committed tens of millions of dollars to support the needs of refugees affected by the pandemic, including $6.5-million for the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“What I’d like to do is create the space to ensure that refugees’ voices are heard when we creating our plans, when we are creating our policies," Mr. Mendicino said.

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