Blog by Nikita Marcou, NU ’21
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on countries around the world, causing even those with robust health systems to struggle in their response. The fear of the damage that the virus can cause in countries with less developed health systems is rising as the cases begin to appear. Humanitarian organizations in these countries have begun to shift their priorities, focusing their relief efforts towards coronavirus-related projects. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), a health-focused international NGO, has reallocated staff and funds from various projects around the world towards preparing health systems for an influx of COVID-19 cases. MSF worked to build new ICU facilities in Brazil, a country that currently has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. MSF has also worked on health promotion projects to increase personal hygiene and sanitation, as well as introduce a contact tracing program in the country. In Mali, MSF has built a COVID-19 unit at a hospital, provided and trained staff, distributed masks, and built handwashing stations. In Yemen, where a civil war has decimated the health system, MSF has taken over running COVID-19 units in hospitals. MSF has varied their response by country, depending on COVID-19 outbreak severity. For instance, in Hong Kong, which was able to contain the virus early on, interventions have focused on providing online tools for stress management and shelter for homeless people who have been affected by local social services getting shut down.
While MSF has helped many countries, humanitarian organizations have faced many difficulties in their responses to the pandemic. PPE shortages have been felt on an international scale, especially by health workers on the frontlines of this crisis. An NGO in Uganda was quoted as saying that a pack of masks that would normally cost $2 is now going for $40, a price that is unsustainable for many organizations. Travel restrictions have also affected the work of NGOs. MSF has been limited in its ability to move international staff to different countries but has said that it is fortunate to have many of its projects run by locals. Grounded flights have meant that aid workers have not been able to get into places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Furthermore, some countries have rejected aid from NGOs and international organizations during the pandemic. Burundi expelled senior WHO officials from the country on May 13 and has since blocked aid organizations from entering the country. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has reduced humanitarian organization access to refugee camps. As a result, only health and food-related services are being provided and any relief work deemed non-essential by the Bangladeshi government, such as education, has stopped. The refugee camps in Bangladesh have seen a rise in gender-based violence since the restrictions started.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is not the only issue currently being addressed by humanitarian organizations. The Democratic Republic of Congo is simultaneously dealing with an Ebola outbreak, so the response has led to some Ebola treatment centers being converted into COVID-19 treatment centers. Somalia is currently dealing with flooding and locusts, which has put a damper on the work of NGOs trying to address these issues. With limited staff and funds, resources have been focused on prioritizing the pandemic response. Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, a development organization focused on building capacity in developing countries, has noticed that the work of many NGOs has become very focused on the short-term virus response instead of the long-term systemic change that many NGOs hope to achieve. Helvetas itself has diverted some of its funds towards WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) programs that are meant to provide short-term assistance.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also expected to worsen many of the inequalities that NGOs already work to address, especially in the fields of health and food insecurity. Many vaccination programs have been put on pause during the pandemic, which is creating concerns of more disease outbreaks. This would put an even larger strain on undeveloped health systems. Cases of polio are appearing in Afghanistan and are expected to rise without the vaccination program. Experts are also expecting measles and cholera outbreaks to pop up as the pandemic continues. The backlog in the production of vaccines caused by the pandemic is likely to impact vaccination programs for the foreseeable future. UNICEF is predicting that more than 117 million kids will miss their measles vaccination due to COVID-19. The pandemic has also interfered with treatment for non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. This has been caused by a lack of staff, cancellations of treatment, and limited public transport because of lockdowns. Additionally, in many countries, funds devoted to sexual and maternal health have been diverted to help with the pandemic response. International Planned Parenthood Federation says that more than 5,600 mobile and community-based clinics offering sexual and reproductive healthcare have closed around the world, limiting access to HIV testing, contraceptives, abortions, and care for gender-based violence survivors. Furthermore, the UN World Food Program predicts that the number of acutely hungry people will double, increasing from 135 million to 265 million as a result of the pandemic. Johns Hopkins predicts that between 42,000 – 192,000 children and 2,000 – 9,450 mothers will die each month from the indirect effects that COVID-19 has on health and food access. The pandemic has disrupted the work of many humanitarian organizations and caused them to pivot their efforts towards coronavirus relief. However, the effects of the pandemic on existing humanitarian issues mean that their work is far from over and the demand for aid will be high in the wake of the crisis.
Nikita Marcou is a member of the Class of 2021, double majoring in biology and science in human culture. She joined GlobeMed at the beginning of her freshman year and since then has been an active member. She is currently serving as the co-director of campaigns.