The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented shutdown of borders and airlines, with 90% of commercial passenger flights grounded, all of which is severely restricting the movement of essential medical personnel and supplies that are vital to save lives.
At least 90% of the world’s population, or 7·1 billion people, live in countries with restrictions on people arriving from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
The World Health Organization (WHO) gives the example of Africa where the delivery of equipment and personnel is vital for the COVID-19 response. “There are 47 countries not allowing any airlines to land and we need to support them with equipment, especially as we cannot send any experts to give technical support, for example, with contact tracing or analysis”, Michel Yao, head of WHO’s emergency operations in Africa, told The Lancet. “There is a big shortage of ventilators and also intensive care unit capacity. There are only about 3000 doctors who have intensive care unit expertise in all of Africa.”
“What people don’t realize is that passenger planes also carry a large bulk of the world’s cargo, and [so the major reduction in regular commercial flights] poses a huge problem for us”, Amer Daoudi, head of logistics for World Food Programme (WFP), told The Lancet. As a result of the restrictions, the WFP has an ambitious network of air bridges that will act like a humanitarian airline for fighting COVID-19 around the world, with WHO as the lead partner for sourcing medical supplies and personnel.
“WFP is committed to getting vital medical supplies to front lines and shielding medical workers as they save lives”, said David Beasley, WFP’s executive director. “Our air bridges need to be fully funded to do this and we stand ready to transport frontline health and humanitarian workers as well as medical cargo.”
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) received exemption from the EU’s ban on exports of personal protective equipment (PPE), said Brice de le Vingne, head of MSF’s COVID-19 task force. MSF needs PPE for its own personnel who work around the world as well as for training on infection prevention and control measures it provides, for example, in Iraq.
Issues of deployment and repatriation of experts have also hit the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the WHO regional office for the Americas. “A recent example of this occurred when we deployed an expert to Guayaquil [Ecuador], which we were only able to do by hiring a charter flight from Colombia”, Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of PAHO, told The Lancet. Restrictions on commercial flights had also caused widespread disruption to deliveries of medical supplies, he said. “Shipments, including PPE, lab supplies, etc, have to wait for space on cargo planes and as demand for these planes increases, there have been challenges.”