On the border between Poland and Ukraine, the Covid emergency has given way to a humanitarian one: providing relief to those fleeing war—but at the risk of triggering more epidemic outbreaks.
In Przemysl, the former Tesco shopping center has been turned into a transit hub for the thousands of refugees who are crossing the border at Medika daily. They arrive crammed in between seats, with the disillusioned and stunned expressions of people who do not know what to expect, but knowing that they are still alive and in a friendly country after many hours or days of travel. Women, young mothers, elderly ladies, teenagers and children—they are glued to the windows, some smiling, others waving, or staring out into emptiness. They have come with a few bags, some suitcases. Some are holding an infant child, some a dog, or a stuffed animal, all hoping to find a safe haven somewhere.
The parking lot looks like an airport, but in the setting of an oriental bazaar. There’s a large souk, with piles of boxes with clothes thrown together after so many have gone through them trying to find something useful, diapers, bottles of water and strollers. Refugees with tired and bitter faces can be seen among the volunteers in yellow or orange vests.
Behind the entrance, there is a row of a few chemical toilets installed on the beaten ground. When you walk by, you have to watch your step because it’s easy to run into human excrement scattered around them.
Inside the center, the situation is that of “one big communal bed,” as engineer Giovan Battista Cicchetti Marchigiani calls it, who is in charge of the mission of the National Institute for Operational Training of Emergency Professionals (Insfo/Roe) at the Tesco center in Przemysl.
The beds are crowded together, one up against another. Lying down, sitting on top of them or on the floor, we see teens, adults, children. They have their backs bent over their cell phones, they are texting and calling. We see worry and tears on their faces, as you’d expect from people who want to hear reassuring news from the person on the other end. None of them are wearing anti-Covid masks.
The beds are occupying the corridors, close to the wall, and what used to be the stores. There is no safe distance, no privacy of any kind. “There is a health emergency and the situation is alarming. There are only five bathrooms, the ones in the former mall, and the Sebach ones outside the building; there are no showers inside. People are piled on top of each other, there are so many of them,” engineer Cicchetti tells us. Right now, they number about 2,500.
“We are having a hard time managing the excessive numbers, because we lack the means to get people to Italy. We have very young children, children who have been injured on the journey, we have pregnant women.” There are no outbreaks of Covid at this point, but “the situation is very critical: every day they stay here amounts to more suffering that is added to everything else they’ve suffered,” Cicchetti continues.
In short, the center should function only as a transit center, for the time necessary to organize departures to other destinations.
Greta Ostrowska, coordinator of humanitarian aid in Przemysl, echoed Cicchetti’s sentiments: “There are no sick or seriously injured people at the Tesco center, but there are some diseases going around among children, because there are few bathrooms and many people.”
She reiterates that they are not equipped to handle the flows these days: “This building is not suitable to accommodate so many people. It was set up to allow them to sleep and protect them from the cold, but obviously the sanitary conditions are difficult. There are eight showers, all outside, in a container. There are people here who have been in shelter tunnels for days without washing before they came to us. We have designated spaces for women with babies, or for mothers to rest and for children to watch cartoons. And then there are spaces for those who have no contacts, who don’t know where to go, so they stay here a little longer.”
She concludes, “Under these conditions, it’s as if there wasn’t a Covid pandemic going on at all.”