• A team of robotics-trained refugees has designed a Lego robot which dispenses hand sanitizer without being touched.
  • The invention – to help refugees combat the coronavirus – has now been replicated elsewhere.
  • The refugees are from the Za’atari camp in Jordan, one of the world’s largest settlements for displaced Syrians.
  • The UN Refugee Agency says the world’s 71 million refugees and forcibly displaced people are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus.

The looming spectre of COVID-19 has brought life to a standstill in the Middle East’s largest refugee camp.

Living in close quarters and with basic health and sanitation facilities, residents of Jordan’s Za’atari settlement are worried about what will happen if the virus reaches them, according to the UNHCR.

The situation has inspired a group of Syrian refugees at the camp to get creative to help – by building a robotic hand sanitizer out of Lego.

Jordan: Refugees build robot sanitiser from LEGO to prevent Coronavirus
The robotic hand sanitiser prototype.
Image: UNHCR

The prototype

The idea is simple: help prevent the spread of COVID-19 with a cheap sanitizer dispenser that can easily be replicated. But to reduce transmission of the virus it has to operate without the need to touch a bottle.

Syrian refugees, trained in robotics at the Jubilee Center for Excellence in Education in Jordan, worked on the problem at the Innovation Lab in the giant Za’atari camp.

“The robot consists of simple Lego bricks, as well as the ‘brain’ and the sensor,” explains Marwan, a refugee who trains others in robotics at the camp. “You put your hand here, it signals that it gave you sanitizer, and that’s it.”

With a whir and a bow, the robot deposits sanitizer on the hand and returns to its upright position, saying “good job, thank you” as it finishes.

Making a difference

The machine has generated a great deal of interest. Even people with robotics experience have asked about its design and programming, Marwan says.

‘’We want to be part of the fight against coronavirus,’’ he continues, explaining that he and other displaced people want to help people both inside and outside the camp at a moment of global crisis.

To do this, they decided to make their design freely available for others to use. “We as refugees, as humans, must help and so we offered them this information and they then made more than one robot,” he says.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Forcibly displaced people worldwide.
The numbers of displaced people around the world, as of June last year.
Image: UNHCR

COVID and refugees

It was been announced that the coronavirus has reached the sprawling refugee camps in the Cox's Bazar district of southern Bangladesh, home to roughly a million Rohingya refugees.

The consequences of large-scale transmission would be devastating, the UNHCR has warned. The UN agency says the world’s 71 million refugees and forcibly displaced people are among the most vulnerable to the virus; 134 refugee-hosting countries are currently reporting local transmission.

The UNHCR is trying to raise $745 million to help it deal with outbreaks of COVID-19 among refugees and displaced people around the world.