Executive Director – International
British Red Cross Society
We still don’t have a clear picture of the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in fragile states and low-income countries. The secondary impacts, however, are already severely felt. Despite the initial surge to action, most humanitarian agencies now recognise that this is a marathon not a sprint and they need to be planning for the long haul. Including how to adapt to a world that may function differently. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s COVID19 appeals launched in March were its call to action – its sprint. Now these appeals are being revised, it is a chance to consider what we can offer to the marathon. Here are seven offers to consider that will strengthen the global response.
The first and second wave: The main effort will stay the same. To support health authorities to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact through community-based surveillance, to support prevention measures and engage in active risk communication, about COVID19 and other critical health threats. These features of the initial appeal will still be paramount.
Supporting social safety nets: The United Nations is warning global hunger could double as a result of the pandemic. The main triggers being closure of critical aid pipelines in countries already facing severe food shortages, such as Zimbabwe or Yemen. Or simultaneous crises, such as faced by Kenya and Somalia, who are dealing with COVID-19 and plagues of locusts. The most widespread trigger though is likely to be caused by loss of livelihoods for the poorest people whose food security each day is dependent on daily labour. Of these, amongst the most vulnerable, will be refugees and migrants. Turkey has a programme designed to address this risk through an EU funded national, social protection programme delivering cash to two million refugees, run by the IFRC and the Turkish Red Crescent. More states will need to set up similar initiatives to blend humanitarian assistance into social protection for their most food insecure people. National Societies (NS) can help governments do this by sharing the Movement’s experience of managing large cash-based programmes and of targeting.
Helping target the most vulnerable: Many states already have lists for their social safety nets, which include the elderly, people living with disabilities, women headed households etc. COVID-19 will have transformed who needs to be on these lists. NS, with their community presence, can help identify who is most in need. Namibia Red Cross is doing just that to support its government foodbank programmes. Amongst the most difficult but important aspects of this targeting will be identifying women and girls at risk of sexual and gender-based violence. This is complicated as the risk tends not to be immediately obvious and is unlikely to be declared. People doing the targeting need to be trained. NS can help with this, but few currently have the right skills. That is why partnership is more important than ever.
Working in partnership: Not all INGOs and NGOs will survive the financial impact of the pandemic. Those that do will be smaller. Specialist organisations with small budgets may be particularly vulnerable. It will be important not to lose their expertise and relationships that have been built over the years. Larger humanitarian organisations will need to be open to pooling resources. Even merging. Specialist organisations may need to be insourced into bigger agencies who can take their expertise and insights to scale.
Building on our health infrastructure: The pandemic has highlighted the risks faced by countries with the weakest health systems. But those risks are not new. For decades, Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with support from ICRC and IFRC, have tried to sustain primary health infrastructures in some of the most vulnerable contexts in the world. The Somalia Red Crescent and Afghan Red Crescent both run a network of clinics. The Yemen Red Crescent too, although much of it is destroyed now. These clinics have struggled to generate investment despite the obvious niche they fill. Now is the time to try again to generate support and to make sure these services support the pandemic response. Kenya Red Cross has launched its ambulance service as a social enterprise. It is now the leading ambulance service in the country and is supporting the pandemic response. Gambia Red Cross has done the same. This could be replicated across much of the continent. These initiatives might be more suitable for private sector investment than humanitarian financing, but at very least, we can seek to bring the investors around the table.
The right legal base: Lockdowns have been disastrous to some aid pipelines. Last week, we heard reports from the Typhoon hit Philippines of hampered evacuation efforts due to the pandemic. Disaster laws can help mitigate such risks in the future, by outlining exceptions to lockdowns, by making clear roles and responsibilities and identifying key workers in advance. IFRC has specialised in advising states on disaster laws for over a decade. It can support now in updating these laws to consider pandemic responses if current legislation is not explicit.
Resilient institutions: It’s always been a struggle to get investment for the institutional development of national humanitarian actors. Humanitarian financing is short term and heavily geared towards international organisations. Yet this pandemic is a reminder that these national institutions, especially NS, are a first line of defence. We need an investment strategy from institutional donors that grows volunteer bases and strengthens national management systems and leadership.This list is not exhaustive, but these seven points would already make up a meaningful contribution to the longer term, global response.