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.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has emphasized 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.
Top of mind for most organizations is 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.
ICRC President Peter Maurer said the new travel bans would hurt. Around half of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) 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.
Christos Christou, the president of MSF, said 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.”
Even within the EU, migrant centres in places like Greece are filled beyond capacity. “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. “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”.
Carola Rackete, a German ship captain arrested in Italy in June 2019 for her work for the Mediterranean rescue organization Sea-Watch, said she feared that border closures may feed growing nationalism, to the detriment of poor and vulnerable migrants.
[The New Humanitarian]