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With monsoon rains unleashing floods and landslides in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are urgently working to secure their shelter in Cox's Bazar District. With monsoon rains unleashing floods and landslides in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees are urgently working to secure their shelter in Cox's Bazar District. Photo credit: UNICEF Bangladesh

Why the coronavirus is not the only pandemic the world could be facing

by Alexander Matheou
9 July 2020

For many, hope is on the horizon as life in Europe tentatively begins to return to some normality. Yet, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that, globally, the situation is worsening.

From the outset of this pandemic, the British Red Cross has been at the forefront of the response in the UK. Our staff and volunteers have been supporting the National Health Service (NHS) and the most vulnerable in our communities with food, medicine and emotional support. We will continue to be there, for as long as we’re needed. But our work cannot stop at our borders.

As a humanitarian organisation with over 150 years’ experience, we are concerned about the devastating impacts this virus is yet to cause. We know the health impacts can be colossal, but we must also fear the secondary effects.

The UN has reminded us that the climate crisis is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term. Climate-related disasters are likely to affect people’s ability to prevent transmission, as well as respond to and recover from the virus. In Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, home to the largest refugee camp in the world, squalid and cramped conditions will not only make the impending monsoon season more deadly, but also render the seemingly simple steps of social distancing and maintaining safe hygiene practically impossible. A lockdown world also makes it more difficult to respond to disasters by hampering the usual preparations – stocking up on food, building defence structures or relocating to safer areas.

As the weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable it also compromises people’s ability to grow food to feed their families. Global hunger could double as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, putting 265 million people at risk, according to the UN. A new desert locust wave is threatening crops in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Lockdown restrictions will further aggravate the loss of livelihoods and reduce the food available in markets.

In the Middle East, fragile health systems and ongoing conflict mean there are serious concerns that the spread of Covid-19 will exacerbate humanitarian needs, particularly in countries like Yemen, where only half of health centres are functioning. In north-east Syria, only one of 16 hospitals is fully functioning and more than half of all public health centres are out of action.

So how do we respond?

The UK government should continue to lead global ambitions on climate action, in advance of the postponed Conference of Parties 26. Linked to this, we must use data effectively to predict and prepare for disasters, something the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has spearheaded for years. This pandemic has shown the importance of tracking global risks and testing how prepared we are to deal with them, both financially and logistically.

We must be innovative in the ways we adapt our response. Cash grants can help markets continue to function and restore availability and access to basic food, as well as creating new opportunities for people who have lost their income due to Covid-19. In Kenya, an integrated cash and voucher response is helping communities affected by the locust invasion, Covid-19 and flooding.

Increased funding and support to health services in conflict areas is more critical than ever. The International Committee of the Red Cross is putting in place preventive measures at the field hospital in Al Hol camp in Syria, and in Yemen it is supporting health systems with protective equipment, medicines and the rehabilitation of infrastructure.

Past experience with epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak, show that local aid workers, powered by a global movement, will be the lifeline of this response. They must be at the centre of decisions about funding. We have seen volunteers in Somaliland detecting the first case of Covid-19 and reaching vulnerable remote communities in Kenya through drones mounted with loudspeakers. In Cox’s Bazar, thousands of volunteers in the camps and surrounding areas are setting up safe water points, distributing personal protection equipment and providing mobile health services.

This is a global emergency on an extraordinary scale, and there is no doubt that many challenges still lie ahead. The Covid-19 response cannot happen in isolation: the focus must be strengthening humanitarian efforts to limit and reduce the secondary impacts, to ensure that no one is left behind.

Alexander Matheou, Executive Director of International at the British Red Cross

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