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Blog: COVID-19 - We must leave no one behind

Emergency Health
International United Kingdom

Aleema Shivji, Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion UK, explains the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable people living in developing countries.

Coronavirus emergency message, photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I have spent many years working on the front-line of humanitarian crises around the world, from conflicts, to disasters, to outbreaks such as cholera. However, COVID-19 is altogether something different. Different because it’s hitting each corner of the world in turn, different because of the pace at which it is spreading. Crucially, different because we can’t contain it in one area and redirect resources from somewhere else. No, here, everyone around the world is affected and even the countries that would normally be redirecting resources are facing challenges on their own doorsteps.

Seeing the impact the virus is already having on the UK’s health system, we must expect a "health tsunami" of unprecedented intensity in the poorest countries where health systems are particularly fragile, where access to water and soap is challenging at the best of times, and where social distancing is near-impossible for vast swathes of the population that live in over-crowded slums, camps and communities.

Older and disabled people at high risk from COVID-19

Past experience, data and evidence show that older people and people with disabilities are often left behind in humanitarian crisis and we are already seeing that COVID-19 is no different. As a monumental humanitarian response is being deployed around the world to try and tackle the spread and impact of COVID-19, we really need to take special care that people with disabilities, older people, people with chronic diseases and injuries are not left behind.

Many of these individuals are at higher risk of COVID-19 due to their age or health condition. Many might be relying on health care systems for essential treatments and medication such as for diabetes or heart disease. They now risk new complications because the scarce health resources that do exist will need to be shifted and re-prioritised towards more urgent needs such as the ones linked to COVID-19 patients, something we’ve seen in the Syrian crisis where people with chronic diseases struggled to access healthcare because people wounded from the conflict were prioritised.

Containment may be impossible for people who rely on others for such basic things as eating, dressing and washing. As we are seeing in the UK, containment measures can increase the occurrence of domestic and sexual violence, and this is something we are already seeing amongst the people we support around the world.

Charities' role in the fight against COVID-19

It is now that we need to act - charities have a crucial role to play domestically, and internationally, to ensure the most vulnerable are not left behind. Acting requires all of us to think differently.

How do we ensure children with disabilities continue to access education when all the schools are closed? How do we overcome the dramatic increase in prices as borders shut (five-fold price rise in just a week in South Sudan)? How do we continue to provide vital support to populations when our access is being restricted due to containment measures or there is a lack of personal protection equipment? How do we continue to fight for the rights of people with disabilities and other marginalised groups so that they are not discriminated against, as difficult choices need to be made on a daily basis on who receives services and who doesn’t? How do we ensure we protect our staff, and the communities we support?

And what about in situations of conflict?

On 23 March, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire around the world in response to the alarming rapid spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in the poorest countries. In countries where conflict has destroyed most of their health system such as in Yemen, the epidemic could claim thousands of lives.

Finding new ways to work

I am incredibly impressed by colleagues around the world that are battling these ethical and practical questions on a daily basis and finding innovative ways to overcome new barriers – using WhatsApp and phone calls to reach beneficiaries, retraining colleagues to provide essential hygiene and prevention messages, ensuring our mental health services continue as the need for them will surely sky-rocket…

In most countries around the world, the charity sector works alongside public services providing essential support to the world’s most vulnerable people. This crisis is having a huge financial and operational impact on international and domestic charities when the need for our work is so much more than it was before.

We can only act, thanks to the generosity of others. We all have a role to play to ensure that the frontline organisations like Humanity & Inclusion and so many others can keep our doors open and adapt our services to respond in the most appropriate way.

We rely on donations from the public, and funding from governments, companies and foundations around the world. Some of our donors have been incredibly supportive and flexible, enabling us to adjust our activities to our new reality, and recognising that we still have costs to cover even when it is impossible to deliver services due to constraints that are outside our control.

Now, more than ever we need support from our individual donors and funders to ensure no one is left behind in this crisis. If we don’t take drastic steps to save charities today, millions of the world’s most vulnerable will pay the price tomorrow.

Aleema Shivji

Aleema Shivji, Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion UK

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