With borders now closing around the world and health services coming under huge strain as COVID-19 spreads, the humanitarian sector is scrambling to adapt to new challenges while continuing to provide assistance in ongoing emergencies and disasters.
The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, national governments, and central banks have reacted with massive stimulus packages, loans, and cash pledges to limit the economic and social fallout. This week, the UN will kick off an unprecedented global humanitarian response plan for the impact of the coronavirus on the world’s troublespots and poorest countries.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a unified response to the global crisis, emphasising that “humanitarian needs must not be sacrificed.”
But many worry this is exactly what might happen, as attention and resources could shift away from some of the world’s most vulnerable populations even as COVID-19 presents a new threat to them.
“It will be quite complicated with the UN and NGOs,” Suze van Meegan, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Somalia, said in a webinar last week hosted by The New Humanitarian. “In headquarters, lots of time is being dedicated to COVID-19, but we are also trying to dedicate time to other concerns.”
TNH asked representatives from across the sector – from heads of aid organisations to those on the front lines of crises – what is keeping them up at night, and what the best way forward might be. Here’s what they said.
Access and personnel: ‘We need to get these people to go back to the field’
Top of mind for most organisations was how to carry on deploying staff to keep existing operations going, as well as making sure the aid itself could still be made accessible to those who need it.
Referring to the assistance the International Committee of the Red Cross provides within conflict areas in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as in Africa – from the Sahel region to Somalia – ICRC President Peter Maurer said the new travel bans would hurt.
“While there doesn’t seem to be any other news, more goes on than the coronavirus in the places where we operate,” Maurer said. “We have all our traditional worries – over access and accessibility, of protecting people and engaging with armed actors – that are characteristic of our traditional work. And then, on top of that, we get a layer of restrictions which are sinking in now, which limit helpers and the movement of beneficiaries.”
Around half of the Médecins Sans Frontières staff coming from abroad to work on international projects are from Europe, where most countries have put checks on foreign travel due to the pandemic.
“While there doesn’t seem to be any other news, more goes on than the coronavirus in the places where we operate.”
Christos Christou, the president of MSF, told TNH he was now worried he wouldn’t be able to deploy enough specialist medical staff to the places where they are needed. “Our human resources have been trapped in their own countries,” he said. “We need these people to go back to the field.”
Explaining how vital it is for the humanitarian sector to create open corridors and policies that exempt aid workers from certain restrictions, Christou said MSF was in talks with European governments to allow staff to travel. “We are already [working closely with] governments where we offered assistance, including Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Yemen.”
Maurer said it was a fine line that needed to be drawn: “We see it in every country, even in non-conflict societies, how difficult it is to balance restrictive regimes and a free space, which in a humanitarian context is so necessary.”
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Nationalism and aid politicisation: “Humans don’t like to help the ‘out’ group”
Carola Rackete, a German ship captain arrested in Italy in June 2019 for her work for the Mediterranean rescue organisation Sea-Watch, told TNH she feared that border closures may feed growing nationalism, to the detriment of poor and vulnerable migrants.
While there has been a surge in mutual assistance activities within communities in the Western countries hit hardest by COVID-19, Rackete didn’t feel this support would translate to outsiders.
“We like to help our ‘in’ group,” she said. “Humans don’t like to help the ‘out’ group. Migrants with other cultures and from other countries are considered the ‘out’ group.”
Even within the EU, migrant centres in places like Greece are filled beyond capacity, and Greek government attempts to expand the camps have been rejected by residents living near them. The Moria centre on the island of Lesvos, for instance, was built to house 3,000 asylum seekers but now hosts some 23,000 people. Facilities and medical services are extremely limited, with many people living in crowded tents and shelters, exposed to low temperatures and unsanitary conditions.
“This is my nightmare,” said MSF’s Christou, “thinking of these people living in precarious situations and knowing that they are now at particular risk. We are extremely concerned about these people living in dire conditions.”
“We like to help our ‘in’ group. Humans don’t like to help the ‘out’ group. Migrants with other cultures and from other countries are considered the ‘out’ group.”
“The idea of self-isolation is a luxury,” explained Christou, adding that, in addition to the Greek camps, he had “extreme concerns” about the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and those currently in the Syrian frontline region of Idlib.
Meanwhile, Matthias Schmale, UNWRA’s operations director in Gaza, expressed his frustration that political paralysis and geopolitical preoccupations among donor countries were already leading to a reduction in funds that is affecting those most in need, particularly in the Middle East.
For Schmale, the lack of momentum to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created a humanitarian situation that is financially unsustainable. “Humanitarian means are not a way to resolve a political problem,” he said.
Since US President Donald Trump eliminated funding for UNRWA in 2018, the organisation – which provides education, medical care, housing, and other services to many of the around 5.4 million registered Palestine refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) – has been financially strapped.
“Even before corona, Gaza was collapsing,” Schmale said, complaining that while the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territory is becoming increasingly dire, “no one talks about it anymore”.
Mistrust and time: ‘How can you build resilience with a six-month project?’
Susana Raffalli, an adviser to Caritas Venezuela, which runs programmes focused at alleviating hunger, explained how – even before the onset of COVID-19 – severely malnourished children brought by the aid group to hospitals were dying due to the lack of basic equipment and medical services.
“You visit the family who tells you it’s better like that [to reduce their suffering], and I also have to say: it is better like that,” Raffalli said. “It is very, very frustrating not to be able to find someone who can help, and to see the mismanagement of food in this country.”
For Raffalli, it’s important that international organisations and donors realise the need to commit to longer-term assistance programmes, while facing the new threat on top of current crises. “For that,” she said, “you don’t just need food and medicine, you need multi-year finance. How can you build resilience with a six-month project?”
Maurer, however, was hopeful that some of the ICRC’s longer-term programmes may gain more traction due to the coronavirus pandemic. He cited renewed interest in the Red Cross’s work to improve health and sanitation in prisons, measures he described as “immensely preventative”.
Funding and focus: ‘We risk becoming a forgotten crisis’
Maurer recognised that the new challenge facing the humanitarian community from COVID-19 represents a “money issue” for the sector and said it was essential that donors “disburse quickly” to counter coronavirus.
“We can scale [up] at speed,” he said. “Later in the year we can see where we are at and what we can still do, and maybe go back to certain activities that we perhaps have to deprioritise [for the time-being].”
Amid growing concerns over politically motivated funding, Schmale of UNRWA had a particularly pointed view about how change may happen. “It is all about people taking matters in their hands and changing those who are in power,” he said.
Many humanitarian organisations clearly worry that their particular cause could become more overlooked because of the pandemic, and are keenly watching how donor money will be distributed – and how quickly and to where medics and other emergency workers will be able to deploy.
Raffalli, the Caritas adviser, warned that a change in strategies was required for those involved in Venezuela, where the elderly and those with underlying conditions are at extra COVID-19 risk due to the badly depleted healthcare system. “By managing the emergency with an inappropriate approach, we risk becoming a forgotten crisis,” she said.
As coronavirus spreads around the world, many people are encountering the daunting reality of a crisis – confinement, precarity, health risks – for the first time. For aid workers, who know the crisis domain all too well, the virus has likely added new, confusing dimensions to an already demanding life. How has the pandemic affected your own work, personal life, and perspective? And what is one thing you would tell someone who is encountering this for the first time?
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