The spread of the coronavirus epidemic in Italy pushed Médecins du Monde to rethink its interventions with migrants both in Rome and in Calabria. In particular, explains Jean-Pierre Foschia, Medical Coordinator of Médecins du Monde in Italy, to widely inform and guarantee exiles access to care and isolation measures. Here is his testimony.

What decisions did you make when the coronavirus epidemic spread to Italy?

With the confinement in Italy, we had to stop the activities of Médecins du Monde in the centres for migrants where we were working. We had planned training activities for professionals of these reception centres, psychosocial activities with minors and women, mainly awareness-raising activities on sexual and reproductive health and gender-related violence. The coronavirus emergency changed everything.

How did you reorient the activities?

As a first step, we decided to develop prevention material related to the coronavirus in different languages. We distributed it through the ARCI association (Italian Association for Leisure activities and Culture), which has developed a website listing the services that asylum seekers and migrants could access once in the country. We have also offered support to this service through intercultural mediators with whom we work regularly.

What are the difficulties encountered by refugees facing the coronavirus health crisis in Italy?

In general, people who have symptoms of Covid-19 call their general practitioner who activates the entire network of health professionals to put them in isolation or have them checked by the Italian regional health services. However, we work with migrants housed in reception centres, and also with those who live on the streets and in squats in Rome, who do not have an appointed general practitioner and, therefore, no direct access to the treatment protocol. For these people, we have activated a telephone line. This information hotline is managed by one of our doctors. We cannot provide medical follow-up, but we can refer migrants to the appropriate services, with the support of the intercultural mediation service.

“We work with migrants who live on the streets and in squats in Rome, who do not have an appointed general practitioner and, therefore, no direct access to the treatment protocol”.

In a migrant camp in Calabria, the team of Médecins du Monde France - Italian mission refers migrants towards services adapted to their health needs. © MdM

What are the requests of the people who call this information hotline?

They are varied. But it was through this service that we were contacted by an inhabitant of the Selam Palace, the large squat on the outskirts of Rome where more than 500 refugees are settled, mostly from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia -, and in which we carried out health promotion activities. This person had symptoms that could be related to the coronavirus. I called the health referent of the roman district because the sanitary conditions and the context of confinement in this place are very precarious. The person tested positive and taken to hospital, then the building was secured by law enforcement to prevent entry and exit. With the help of our Eritrean intercultural mediator who himself lived there, we went to reassure the population, explain the measures, and guarantee the follow-up of the treatment of people suffering from chronic diseases.

Then, doctors from Spallanzani Hospital, the national reference hospital for the coronavirus, came to perform tests on all people living on the same floor of the building. 30 out of 70 were found to be positive. Therefore, all six floors must be tested and positive people transferred to identified structures, such as hotels, to be placed in safer isolation conditions.

The team of Médecins du Monde France - Italian mission distributed hygiene kits to improve the living environment and sanitary conditions of migrants (gloves, mops, alcohol and personal hygiene products). © MdM

How can you help migrant populations protect themselves from the coronavirus?

At Selam Palace and in another squat in Rome we distributed hygiene items to improve the living environment and sanitary conditions. Gloves, bleach, mops, alcohol to disinfect common areas but also some personal hygiene products. We have also supplied these products to informal settlements in Calabria where migrants, employed as seasonal workers for the citrus harvest, live in very precarious conditions.

We also organized prevention live chats with doctors and psychologists through a platform targeting young migrants and managed by UNICEF. Others have been programmed for different communities – in particular for the attention of the Eritrean community  with the presence of community leaders.

We also support Caritas, which has a centre for homeless and all vulnerable people near the Central Station in Rome. They needed help with medical check-ups during this outbreak. Therefore, we gave at their disposal a doctor from MdM. Today we plan to restart remote awareness sessions for refugees living in the receptions centres where we were working and to reschedule trainings for the staff of these centres.

Interview by Thomas Flamerion