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How a local response can halt this global crisis

‘Individually and collectively, our volunteers represent hope.’

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

Borders are closed. International travel is restricted or forbidden. And the clock is ticking to contain the spread of the coronavirus. How are we to touch – and save – the lives of people most affected when we in the humanitarian sector face countless barriers in no-touch zones?

In living memory, there has not been such a truly global crisis. 

Humanitarian organisations are rushing to support the most vulnerable people: the elderly, communities in overcrowded urban slums, people living in fragile states and poverty, marginalised groups, and people on the move.

Our traditional methods of support have had to be either reinvented or tossed out the window altogether.

Despite these changes, we’re relying on our strongest advantages as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). We know the key to stopping this crisis lies in a fully localised response.

This means adapting our model of global solidarity, where resources, equipment, and personnel have been quickly moved into position to support a Red Cross or Red Crescent Society that is responding to a major disaster or crisis.

“Our traditional methods of support have had to be either reinvented or tossed out the window altogether.”

We have been striving for a model that is “as local as possible and as global as necessary” in line with our localisation commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. And the value of strong local and national humanitarian response – backed by global resources where they are needed – has never been more evident than it is today.

Fortunately, the IFRC didn’t have to start from scratch: the Red Cross and Red Crescent has always been a collection of hyper-local units and branches.

This community presence means that our experts in health and care, disaster response and risk reduction, and humanitarian logistics were already on the ground when the pandemic took hold months ago. Our network of humanitarian workers in 192 countries will stand alongside their communities for as long as the pandemic continues, and they will still be there long after the crisis has passed.

This is how we’ve always worked: at community level. The IFRC was founded in 1919 partly as a response to the previous year’s deadly influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people and infected at least 500 million worldwide. The Red Cross Societies of France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States created our federation so that the medical expertise gained during the 1918 pandemic, and the World War that had preceded it, could be shared across the world.

For now, our priority lies in health and care services. This includes pre-hospital and medical services, community health and care, risk communication, and community engagement.

We are also providing the mental health and psychosocial support that will continue to be desperately needed as individuals and communities come to terms with the threat to the people they love, and the frightening changes to the world they have always known.

While responding to immediate needs, we cannot lose sight of the ongoing challenges that COVID-19 will cause in communities large and small across the world.  

People are losing their jobs, incomes are vanishing overnight, and people are scared – not only for their health, but for their ability to care for and provide for their families. In many urban slums, there is growing fear that the restrictions placed on people’s lives during lockdown, together with loss of income and associated fears of not being able to afford food and rent, could lead to mental health crises or even civil unrest in some settings.

Further, natural disasters, climate-related extreme weather events and other health crises – such as malaria, tuberculosis, measles, and cholera – will not stop while the COVID-19 pandemic has the world’s full attention. Our everyday work to reduce the risks of these events, and to help prepare for and recover from them, must continue.

Disease outbreaks begin and end inside local communities. Today, 14 million Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and 165,000 local branches across the world are already supporting theirs. Every volunteer plays an important role connecting directly with their communities. This ongoing commitment will be key to slowing – and eventually halting – this pandemic.

To help make all of this possible, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – IFRC, the ICRC, and the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – have appealed for funding for community-level healthcare, critical health supplies, the mobilisation of local volunteers, emergency cash grants for families, and the mitigation of the pandemic’s social and economic impacts.

Individually and collectively, our volunteers represent hope. Let’s work to ensure that they have the global support they need to work safely and effectively at the local level, where lives will be saved and communities will be protected.

This crisis has already made history. Our actions now will shape the future.

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