The humanitarian world confronting to the coronavirus.

©Ebola processing centre, Sierra Leone, Solidarités International.

The humanitarian world confronting to the coronavirus.

The comparison is made, it is war against an invisible virus and without a vaccine to protect against it! It is at the same time a local, national and global war that concerns 7.7 billion human beings. This is the emergency today and for the months to come.

It concerns us all and wherever we are, in Paris as in N’djamena, in Rome as in Kabul, in New York as in Delhi, everywhere. Some countries are better equipped than others to respond to it. In France we expect a wave of new cases. But we hope to be able to curb the worst. Other countries are less ready to deal with them, and in those countries, the humanitarian community must be with them on the front line.

This health crisis is a double humanitarian crisis by the disorganization it causes in the delivery of ongoing emergency relief and, simultaneously, with the coronavirus that will multiply the number of victims while paralyzing a significant part of the sources of subsistence of the most vulnerable populations. One emergency will thus telescope another!

After a period of astonishment, we now need to move quickly out of the limbo through a massive global humanitarian mobilization to contain the virus and save as many lives as possible.

A virus that is disrupting ongoing humanitarian assistance and multiplying the obstacles to action.

It already seems a long way from the appeal made by the United Nations and a hundred or so humanitarian organisations on 4 December last year to help 168 million people in 2020 with a budget of 29 billion dollars. Much more needs to be done. This coronavirus pandemic has several disastrous consequences that need to be identified in order to limit its effects and to mobilise rapid and strong alternative responses.

It profoundly disrupts the humanitarian system by leading, depending on the country, to the return of non-essential personnel and the confinement of all or part of the teams. In addition, the usual supply chains are often cut off and borders closed to the entry of essential products such as medicines.

But for humanitarians, this war is unlike any other they have experienced. It is very different. Humanitarianism means acting voluntarily to save lives in countries where populations are threatened by war or disaster.  But, in this case, the humanitarian worker may himself be a carrier of the virus and transmit it without knowing it! But this may soon no longer be the problem as the number of sick people increases!

An unprecedented sanitary and humanitarian emergency.

The emergency is global and will spare no country, no population. As we can see, even the developed countries are struggling to cope with it. They should finally succeed, but not without loss of human life and serious economic and social consequences. The network of associations is already mobilizing for the most marginalized vulnerable populations such as the homeless and migrants.

The priority of international humanitarian organisations is to identify the countries, territories and populations most vulnerable to the virus. At the risk of being reductive, Africa and the concentrations of refugees and displaced persons represent the highest threat. But let us not forget India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and others.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreynus, has just declared that “Africa must prepare for the worst”. Let us hope that the WHO will set an example and live up to its responsibilities as each of the actors. If, today, Africa is the least affected continent, Covid-19 will expand in the coming weeks with an exponential growth in the number of patients. WHO experts fear, in the event of a massive spread of the virus, a mortality rate close to 10%.

Because Africa is less well armed for at least three reasons. Firstly, it will be very difficult to curb the pandemic by general containment because the informal economy forces many Africans to work on the streets every day to feed themselves on a daily basis. The difficulty of access to drinking water and even to soap will limit the effect of this essential barrier. Finally, the lack of adapted health infrastructures will not allow to receive all serious cases. As a reminder, West Africa has only 0.3 beds per 1000 inhabitants against 7 beds per 1000 in hospitals in France where there are fifty times more doctors!

©Rohingya refugee camps in Teknaf, Bangladesh, Solidarités International.

The same will be true for refugees and displaced persons in Yemen, in Syria as in Idlib or Lebanon, in Bangladesh for the Rohingyas, or in Venezuela or Colombia. These populations often survive in overcrowded conditions and without equipped health facilities. Awareness of the tragedy is such that in Afghanistan the Taliban have opened up the territories they control to humanitarian organisations to fight against the virus.

Emergency measures to be taken now.

The entire humanitarian world and its partners must urgently mobilize massively and effectively. Let us call for “humanitarian corridors” to be opened wherever it is essential to deliver relief supplies in a secure manner.

There is no point in wasting time calling for the reopening of borders, especially when they are one of the means of containing the virus, but above all we must allow the passage of experts, equipment, medicines and essential goods. And what is true of external borders will be true of authorisations for internal movement.

If, in this fight against the virus, speed of action is a moral obligation and an operational necessity, we must also coordinate between organisations in order to optimise complementarities and support States, public services and local structures as much as possible, especially when they are best placed to act.

Humanitarian associations respond to a broad spectrum of the vital needs of populations at risk. For example, they have practical experience in the fight against Ebola and cholera, which will be very useful in the fight against the coronavirus, both in preventive measures such as the distribution of water and soap and hygiene awareness, and in the setting up of confined treatment centres! On the medical level, the NGOs will carry out interventions combining the fight against the virus with other ills such as malnutrition, cholera and measles.

In the same way, the experience of cash transfers can be widely used to enable the most vulnerable populations to remain confined as much as possible by reorganizing secure supply circuits.

However, this requires not only that humanitarian organizations put themselves in a battle order now, but also that their capacities not be curtailed or even hindered. What is at stake is the behaviour of their partners. It is essential that States, international institutions and donors support these organisations, taking into account all the additional support costs incurred by the crisis.

They will need the banks to guarantee the outstanding amounts relating to the programmes but also to provide them with cash. What has been done in France for public services and companies, “whatever the cost”, must be done just as much for the humanitarian sector. It is necessary to preserve the capacities of humanitarian organizations, which in fact represent a genuine international public relief service at a time when countless lives need to be saved.

This is a provisional conclusion.

Let us move into continuous emergency mode. Already the directors of the missions of humanitarian NGOs are coordinating in France. Coordination Sud has set up an emergency unit in Paris and VOICE has made proposals for exceptional measures to the European Commission with ECHO. Contacts are increasing with the UN and its agencies.

Faced with this large-scale, complex crisis, it will be necessary to adapt and respond massively while targeting aid on a case-by-case basis.

The respite is very short for Africa and for the refugees and displaced persons. An air and sea bridge is already needed to transport experts, medicines, health equipment and goods in large quantities to ports, airports and transit logistics centres.

Coordination worthy of the name must be put in place at the required levels, here and there. We will also have to seriously deal with the humanitarian workers affected by the virus. The headquarters of the humanitarian organizations must hold their ground by adapting to this exceptional emergency as we go along.

For this, we need everyone, from donors to States and international organizations, to the army itself with its resources and the 570,000 humanitarian workers still deployed around the world today.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells us in his book Pilote de guerre: “Everyone is responsible for everyone. Everyone is solely responsible. Everyone is solely responsible for everyone”.

And then, every day too, let each and every one of us take care of ourselves, our loved ones and the most fragile. Let’s support the caregivers while mobilizing everywhere against this virus that is the misfortune of all.

Alain Boinet.

©Mozambique, plane chartered by the Crisis and Support Centre of the Quai d’Orsay, Solidarités International.