A humanitarian airlift to fight coronavirus

©RHL airlift, Lyon, 8 May 2020, Solidarités International.

In Défis Humanitaires, on March 25th, we called for the organization of an air and sea bridge to rescue the most vulnerable populations, particularly in Africa where the WHO feared up to 10% of victims due to the coronavirus!  An airlift has just started and although the pandemic is slowly spreading in Africa, it is important to be vigilant and mobilized to face an economic, social, food crisis, in a word a humanitarian crisis, caused by the global health crisis which is not over.

The airlift began on Friday 8 May with the dispatch of a first plane from Lyon in France. It was welcomed in Bangui in the Central African Republic by President Touadéra in the presence of Janez Lanarcic, European Commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid with ECHO. The plane was carrying 75 passengers, mainly aid workers from 15 NGOs and 12 nationalities, and 8 tonnes of equipment (medicines, protective equipment, etc.).

This airlift is truly a landmark first. It was requested by the NGOs, supported and relayed by France with the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and financed by the European Union (ECHO). This funding of 10 million euros should enable some thirty flights in 3 to 6 months.

Its organisation is also unprecedented as it brings together three types of actors and partners. The European Union, which chartered the plane and mobilised its services (ECHO), France (CDCS), which obtained flight and landing authorisations and visas, and the coordination of the NGOs of the Humanitarian Logistics Network (RLH)1 , which brought together passengers and freight with the Bioport association at Lyon Saint Exupéry airport and ensured day-to-day coordination with ECHO in Brussels and CDCS in Paris. You will find in this edition the interview of Marie Houel from Solidarités International who coordinated this first flight within the framework of the Humanitarian Logistics Network.

This flight was immediately followed by two others to Bangui with 32 tonnes of cargo on 12 and 13 May.  Four other flights are planned in the following 3 weeks, with a priori destinations in the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan and Burkina Faso. Other European Union Member States will participate in the operation and the operational coordination of NGOs is being strengthened. This airlift complements the mechanism set up by the World Food Programme.

But what good could it do since the Coronavirus affects Africa so little? As of 12 May, the figures seem reassuring. In Africa, there are 66,373 officially identified cases, 21,821 people hospitalized and 2,336 deaths, i.e. less than 1% of the deaths of the world total, even though Africa represents 17% of the world’s population.

However, it is important to remain particularly vigilant and mobilized because the number of cases is now increasing by 51% every week in West Africa and 58% in Central Africa! This is also the case both in North Africa and in the south of the continent. We are also getting worrying signals from humanitarian missions.

This health crisis is leading others into a dangerous spiral. On 29 April, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published a new report indicating that 76% of the 2 billion workers in the informal economy in the world, or 1.6 billion people, are “strongly affected” by the crisis. Income losses are expected to reach 60% globally and could even be as high as 81% in Africa and Latin America. “This disaster will become a humanitarian tragedy” according to Guy Rider, the ILO Director General.

In the area of food, the World Food Programme (WFP) warns that the coronavirus is dramatically increasing the number of people affected by food insecurity and that the number of food insecure people will rise from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million this year. Of these, 30 million could be threatened by famine, particularly in 10 countries including South Sudan, Yemen, CAR, Afghanistan, Syria and Haiti. This is an emergency. The WFP is now talking about a hunger pandemic and its director general, David Beasley, has “sounded the alarm” before the UN Security Council, saying “We don’t have time on our side”.

The same goes for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which states that the number of people in food and nutrition crisis in West Africa could rise from 17 to 50 million between June and August 2020! Similarly, in a press release, 8 regional and international humanitarian organizations call on governments to take all necessary measures (price controls, market supply, social safety nets, …) and encourage them to encourage “local production and consumption”. In the Sahel, “We are facing 3 interdependent crises: the health crisis, the security crisis and the food crisis whose effects can be added together” says Sabrina Regent of Solidarités International in Mali.

©Food distribution in Mali, Solidarités International.

This universal pandemic that is paralyzing the world is severely disrupting emergency humanitarian action and ongoing programmes are being delayed or even hindered at the very moment when the general situation is deteriorating for populations with the Coronavirus.

The airlift is all the more useful in that it will make it possible to strengthen ongoing missions. As of today, nearly 900 NGO aid workers are already ready to leave.  This is the advantage of these upcoming direct flights, while WFP flights will be able to concentrate on transporting the cargo needed by the relief teams.

So what are the first lessons we can learn from this ongoing crisis?

At the global level, the structural lesson is twofold. Firstly, it is clearly that each country’s capacity to deal with a crisis of any kind must be autonomous. Each country is by definition responsible for its population. What is true in France for masks, tests and containment/deconfinement is even more true for countries less able to cope and, in particular, those that are the scene of a conflict or disaster. It is even our duty to help them to do so, so that they can gain in capacity and autonomy and thus responsible sovereignty. This is, moreover, the raison d’être of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Today, there is no United Nations without a Nation-State whose first responsibility is to protect populations by ensuring the health, economic, social, food and security response for all. Humanitarians know this well from their experience of crises. The first solidarity, the first aid comes first of all from local and national actors through local mutual aid. Strengthening them is an absolute priority and I would even say a humanitarian duty for all of us.

The second lesson is precisely that of international solidarity. If it must apply between individuals, it must also apply between peoples, states and nations. It is precisely the solidarity we sorely need at this time and which must be equal to the planetary challenge, all the more so since the misfortune of some may well cause the misfortune of others and ultimately the misfortune of all!

At a time when containment has everywhere become the rule for the protection of people, a country can legitimately close its borders to delay and control the advance of the virus, while deciding to open its borders to aid and to products and services essential to the economic and social life of each of its neighbours.

©Preparation of hygiene kits to combat covid, April 2020, Paris, Solidarités International.

It is also a more serious lesson to meditate on. That of the delay of one month between the end of December and the end of January, a month lost, before the World Health Organization (WHO) and the People’s Republic of China recognized the existence of this Covid-19 virus transmissible to humans and the risk of a global pandemic that may have spread around the world in the meantime! What are the early warning mechanisms and rules in international relations that this pandemic must lead us to foresee in the future, before it can happen again!

In the meantime, the pandemic is not over and it will continue to claim victims. And we are sure that an economic and social crisis will follow, it is already latent. In the most fragile countries, there is even a risk of famine, which must be anticipated as soon as possible in order to curb it. The humanitarian duty is simple and clear, to avoid the worst as much as it is in our solidarity to be able to do so!

In this edition, I strongly recommend that you read Marie Houel’s interview on the behind-the-scenes of the airlift that has just begun and which is a first both in its genesis and in its organization, which clearly highlights the added value of pooling wills and capacities, each in his or her own role.

Read also the opinion column by Pierre Brunet, writer and humanitarian, and the Tract published by Patrice Franceschi, writer, published by Gallimard, which fight in the name of freedom both “precautionism” and generalized tracing in the best of worlds style dear to Mr. Orwell.

For this 40th edition, Défis Humanitaires publishes an edition every 15 days on average, instead of one per month, to contribute in its own way to the fight against the pandemic as well as to the humanitarian aggiornamento that this virus could bring.

Finally, I invite you to subscribe and share around you Défis Humanitaires and its articles, analyses, interviews. Thank you for your subscription.

Alain Boinet.

1The RLH is composed of the following NGOs : ACTED, Action Contre la Faim, Handicap International/Humanity and Inclusion, Médecins du Monde, Plan International, Première Urgence Internationale, Solidarités International.

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