COVID-19 and Humanitarian Crises

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26 August 2020, 10:30 a.m.

(Disponible en français : La COVID-19 et les crises humanitaires)

At the beginning of 2020, millions of people around the world were already in a state of significant vulnerability as a result of armed conflicts, disasters and state failure. This HillNote discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on humanitarian settings and humanitarian assistance.

Overlapping Emergencies

According to the International Rescue Committee, people in humanitarian settings face a “double emergency” from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is the direct impact “on unprepared health care systems and populations with pre-existing vulnerabilities,” as well as the “secondary havoc the disease will cause to these states’ already fragile humanitarian, economic, security and political environments.”

Pandemics can have indirect health effects. For example, amid COVID-19–related shutdowns, vaccination campaigns in many countries to combat diseases such as diphtheria and measles have been disrupted. According to the United Nations (UN) Children’s Fund, there has been “a massive backlog in vaccine shipments.”

The United Nations COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan

In March 2020, the UN launched a COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, seeking US$2 billion from donors, in addition to existing humanitarian appeals. A May 2020 update increased the COVID-19 appeal to US$6.7 billion. By July 2020, the UN was requesting US$10.3 billion to address needs in 63 countries.

According to the Financial Tracking Service administered by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of 17 August 2020, the plan was funded to 21.3% of its requirements. Canada had provided 1.3% of the plan’s reported funds, or some US$28 million. As well, Canada has responded to additional appeals, contributing almost US$60 million overall in reported humanitarian funding for the COVID-19 emergency. The top donor overall is the United States, at US$874 million.

The unmet requirements of the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan could be a function of its expanding scope, financial constraints in donor countries that are dealing with significant domestic policy challenges, or delays in reporting.

A Spectrum of Need

The UN’s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan aims to address emerging vulnerabilities, including the rise in severe hunger. Larger macroeconomic and development challenges are meant to be addressed through separate plans initiated by the UN Development Programme, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others.

While humanitarian operations are focused on providing life-saving assistance to those in greatest need, development assistance is generally designed to address more systemic issues, often in cooperation with state institutions and sometimes with policy conditions attached.

There is a long-running debate about whether the distinction between humanitarian and development structures, plans and programming should be lessened or bridged. In several cases, countries and regions are not easily categorized as being either in a state of development, peacebuilding or crisis. Situations can progress, regress and overlap.

A 2019 report published by Development Initiatives found that 33% of people who were living in extreme poverty were also living in countries with recurrent humanitarian appeals. Moreover, a number of countries that receive humanitarian assistance are also facing debt distress and climate shocks.

There is, however, concern that the principles guiding humanitarian action – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – could be compromised if humanitarian and development activities were merged.

The Impact on the Operational Landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected humanitarian operations, through restrictions of movement and disruptions to transportation systems and supply chains.

At the end of March 2020, ACAPS – a non-profit organization focused on humanitarian analysis – conducted a “Quick Impact Survey” of humanitarian organizations. While almost all respondents replied that government measures in response to the pandemic were having some impact on their fieldwork, 56% reported an “important impact on all operations,” with 13% indicating that “only life-saving operations persevered,” and 7% that operations had stopped entirely.

In the COVID-19 context, local actors have become more important than ever to ensure that assistance continues to reach those in need and that it responds to realities on the ground.

The “Grand Bargain” launched during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit had, as one of its goals, the targeting of at least 25% of humanitarian funding to local and national responders – as directly as possible – by 2020. Nonetheless, the earlier iterations of the UN’s COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan were met with concern regarding the limited amount that was being set aside in direct funding for non-UN organizations.

The July 2020 update to the appeal includes a US$300 million “supplementary envelope” for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As of 17 August 2020, national and local NGOs had received some US$23 million of the direct funding reported through the Financial Tracking Service, compared to more than US$1.7 billion for UN agencies. Depending on the agency, varying amounts of that funding are subsequently channelled to implementing partners.

A Stretched System

In addition to the immediate health risks posed by COVID-19, there are broader issues to consider.

The first relates to demands on the humanitarian system.

At the end of 2019, the UN requested almost US$29 billion from donors for the coming year to respond to the world’s humanitarian crises. By July 2020, the appeal – now including the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan – had increased to US$40 billion. That “record” amount is intended to help approximately 250 million people.

The second consideration is the global nature of the COVID-19 emergency.

The traditional model of humanitarian operations sees the surge of external resources into a concentrated area experiencing a crisis. However, as researchers at the Center for Global Development have noted, that model is challenged “when travel is widely restricted and the crisis is hitting every country simultaneously.”

Third, certain groups face heightened vulnerabilities in the COVID-19 context.

In addition to the risk of domestic and intimate partner violence for women and girls in lockdown situations, displaced women and girls may be at increased risk of sexual exploitation and early marriage. Even so, only a small amount of humanitarian funding – approximately US$44 million reported for the COVID-19 emergency as of 17 August 2020 – specifically targets gender-based violence.

Finally, many acute and protracted humanitarian crises are exacerbated by the pandemic.

For example, after more than five years of civil war and foreign intervention, some 80% of Yemen’s population relies on humanitarian assistance, including 12.3 million children. It is estimated that only half of the country’s health facilities are fully functioning. Already dealing with suspected cholera cases in 22 of its 23 governorates, Yemen declared its first case of COVID-19 on 10 April 2020.

The UN, which withdrew a number of its personnel from Yemen as a result of COVID-19, and has had to reduce or close many programs because of a lack of funding, considers the country to be one of the least permissive environments for humanitarian operations.

Now, the depreciation of the local currency is increasing the price of food for a population that was already facing widespread hunger, at the same time as remittances from Yemenis working abroad are falling. Persistent armed conflict, the absence of a political settlement, and a deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation have seemingly pushed Yemen to the very edge of a precipice.

Additional Reading

Ben Parker, “COVID-19 aid funding: The many pots and pitfalls,” Aid and Policy, The New Humanitarian, 3 June 2020.

Heba Aly, “This global pandemic could transform humanitarianism forever. Here’s how,” Aid and Policy, The New Humanitarian, 8 June 2020.

Melissa Pavlik, “A Great and Sudden Change: The Global Political Violence Landscape Before and After the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, 4 August 2020.

Y-Ling Chi, Lydia Regan, Cassie Nemzoff, Carleigh Krubiner, Yasmine Anwar and Damian Walker, “Beyond COVID-19: A Whole of Health Look at Impacts During the Pandemic Response,” CGD Policy Paper 117, Center for Global Development, July 2020.

Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020, 22 July 2020.

Global Affairs Canada, Canada’s ongoing humanitarian efforts in response to COVID-19 pandemic, News release, 15 June 2020.

Global Affairs Canada, Backgrounder – Canada provides funding to address COVID-19 pandemic, 5 April 2020.

Author: Allison Goody, Library of Parliament

Categories: COVID-19, Health and safety, International affairs and defence

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