UN launches $2bn appeal to fight coronavirus in crisis settings

Aid agencies are bracing themselves for the arrival of Covid-19 in refugee camps and war zones where there is limited access to water and health services.

The United Nations has launched a $2bn global appeal to fight Covid-19 as it begins to spread into countries already grappling with humanitarian crises, including many in the Middle East.

The Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan will help pay for the delivery of medical supplies and testing equipment and the installation of handwashing stations in refugee camps and settlements. 

There will also be more public information campaigns, and airbridges and distribution hubs are to be set up on several continents in order to move humanitarian workers and supplies to where they are needed most.

Officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, Covid-19 has already taken a heavy toll in the developed world, where hospitals are overflowing with patients, and public buildings such as ice-rinks are being repurposed as morgues.

“This is a matter of basic human solidarity.”But the impact of the virus on poorer and conflict-wracked countries – where there are large migrant and refugee populations with limited access to sanitation and even basic healthcare services - is expected to be even more devastating.

“Wealthy countries with strong health systems are buckling under the pressure, but now the virus is arriving in countries already in the midst of humanitarian crisis caused by conflicts, natural disasters, and climate change,” said UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in an online address to launch the appeal.

He stressed there was a “moral imperative” to “act now to stem the impact of Covid-19 in already vulnerable humanitarian contexts” as well as maintain support for existing emergency relief plans. 

And, diverting funding from existing programming, Guterres warned, could lead to catastrophic consequences, with the further spread of diseases like cholera, measles, meningitis and greater levels of child malnutrition. “We must come to the aid of the ultra-vulnerable,” he said. “This is a matter of basic human solidarity.”

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where there are several active conflicts, including in Yemen, Syria and Libya, as well as millions of refugees and internally-displaced families living in precarious conditions, aid agencies are bracing themselves for the arrival of Covid-19, which has already killed more than 16,000 people worldwide.

“The challenges are immense,” said Rula Amin, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. “Most of the refugees in MENA are living in countries that are going through economic struggles and the public health systems and services are weak.

“Refugees, whether in or outside camps, tend to live in crowded shelters which poses a serious challenge to one of the basic preventive measures: social distancing,” she added. “In places like Yemen, basic necessities for prevention, like water to wash hands in, are a scarce commodity.”

Mohammed Abdi, Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said: “We’re extremely concerned that on top of everything else, the possibility of coronavirus reaching Yemen will have devastating consequences for an already overstretched health system and vulnerable population.

“Five years of war have crippled Yemen’s ability to respond to any outbreak and it is now a race against time to prepare,” he added.

Sanitisation and disinfection at New Gaza Prep School, Gaza Strip. Photo by Khalil Adwan (UNRWA)

Yemen has not yet reported any incidence of Covid-19, but the caseload is growing rapidly in Lebanon and Jordan, home collectively to more than 3 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

In the past week Syria, Gaza, and Afghanistan have all confirmed the virus’ presence, although due to limited access to testing, the true number of cases in all these places is believed to be far higher.

The tiny Palestinian enclave of Gaza, which is home to 1.9m people, of whom more than half are refugees and dependent on food assistance, is a major concern. 

“Economic vulnerability is high,” said Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). “The blockade and the overall poor conditions of the health structures will make an effective response difficult to put in place… and Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, so social distancing is difficult."

Mario Stephan, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the UAE, echoed concerns about a Covid-19 outbreak in war-torn countries such as Yemen and Syria, as well as among homeless, migrants, and those living in refugee camps.

“These people are already living under harsh conditions and their access to healthcare is already compromised,” he said. “They are already very neglected – if an outbreak of Covid-19 were to propagate in these settings, they will face a disaster even worse than elsewhere.”

“To leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries to their fate would be both cruel and unwise."

In Lebanon, which had more than 260 confirmed cases and 19 deaths as of March 24, the country’s restrictions on movement are already starting to affect the most vulnerable.

Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of the NGO Sawa for Development and Aid, told Philanthropy Age that refugees are typically reliant on daily work, either in the fields or labouring. Due to movement restrictions, they have not been able to do these jobs, causing an abrupt reduction in already low and irregular incomes.

She added that Sawa, which works within Syria and with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, had halted its community kitchens and bakeries over fear of spreading the virus, but it was now considering restarting some services due to rising hunger within camps and other refugee settings.

But delivering aid under the shadow of coronavirus is far from easy. Grounded flights, sealed borders and government-imposed curfews limit international staff deployment and restrict access to those most in-need. 

Community education messages about handwashing and social distancing are increasingly being shared online, although poor internet connectivity in refugee settings remains an issue, as does limited access to water.

“We are trying as much as possible to get information to the refugees via their phones, but they often have very limited data bundles,” explained Mhaissen, who said the lack of water in camps made the handwashing message slightly “absurd”.

Sixteen-year-old Mu'tassim al-Madhoun sees a doctor at a school in Gaza, which has been transformed into a treatment for respiratory patients.
March 2020 (UNRWA) 

The UN’s appeal to governmental donors replaces existing virus-related funding requests from its agencies and takes the total projected funding needs for UN-led humanitarian response during 2020 to more than $30bn.

Earlier in March, the WHO launched a separate vehicle, the Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, enabling private individuals, corporations, and institutions anywhere in the world to donate to the wider global response. 

Making an impassioned plea to governments and other donors to step up with funding for the appeal, Guterres, who days earlier called for a global ceasefire to allow aid workers the space to tackle the virus, said: “Covid-19 is menacing the whole of humanity – and so the whole of humanity must fight back. Individual country responses are not going to be enough.”

Mark Lowcock, the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, who also attended the online appeal launch, said: “To leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries to their fate would be both cruel and unwise.

“If we leave coronavirus to spread freely in these places, we would be placing millions at high risk, whole regions will be tipped into chaos and the virus will have the opportunity to circle back around the globe.”