It is fair to say that we are all happy to put 2020 behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has brought changes to almost all aspects of our lives. It has paralysed economies, crippled communities, hindered mobility and confined millions of people around the world to their homes.
We have all grappled with the pandemic in one way or another. Some people have lost family members, while others have lost jobs or struggled with mental-health issues as a result of the virus that continues to rage around the world without discrimination.
Hardly any of us have not been touched by it. But we have not all been affected equally. For people living in conflict zones, the Covid-19 pandemic has come as a fresh and terrifying threat, exacerbating an already dire situation, for example.
Faced with immediate threats to life, such as gunfire, shelling, bombings and/or a lack of life-saving healthcare, it is a real challenge to prioritise actions that could prevent the spread of Covid-19. Preventive measures, such as social-distancing and hand-washing, are a luxury in some situations such as displacement camps and detention facilities. Syria and Yemen are examples.
Years of conflict in Syria and Yemen have left people exhausted and cruelly exposed to the threat of diseases like Covid-19. The weakened healthcare systems in these countries are struggling to cope with yet another terrifying reality.
Covid-19 has overwhelmed even some of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world, let alone hospitals in war zones. Half a decade of war in Yemen has left less than half of the healthcare facilities in the country working. Similarly, in Syria, half of all healthcare facilities are out of service or partially functioning across the country.
And let us not forget the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19. Most of the world’s countries are feeling the pinch of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Imagine how this will add to the struggles of the millions of people living in conflict zones, where they are trying to cope with little or no food, lost livelihoods, soaring prices and destroyed infrastructure.
We have heard the stories of a Yemeni mother who said that she had to prioritise feeding her four children over paying for insulin shots for her sick son, or of an elderly man with diabetes who said that he skips food on days when taking his medications, so the medicine can last him longer. These are just two examples of many heart-breaking stories coming in from conflict-stricken countries.
In response to this unprecedented situation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has carried out a major reorientation of its assistance activities, adapting its existing work to the new reality. The ICRC continues to work hand-in-hand with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement (the Movement) and other partners to curb the spread of the coronavirus in countries around the world, including Egypt, where we have donated protective gear to the national healthcare system and to the Egyptian Red Crescent, our Movement partner.
In Syria, the ICRC’s largest operation globally, the ICRC has distributed hygiene kits to vulnerable and internally displaced communities and helped prisoners with anti-infection measures, among other activities. In Yemen, together with its Movement partners, the ICRC has set up a free Covid-19 treatment centre in the city of Aden. In both countries, the ICRC has supported hospitals by donating supplies and equipment as well as financial support.
This work has not been easy. Working in conflict zones is already very difficult, and the spread of Covid-19 and the restrictions that have followed it have made helping the victims of conflict even harder.
Border closures and the suspension of flights and movement from one country to another have had an effect on our human-resource capacity and the aid we can bring in. Some of our colleagues have been blocked from entering certain countries or delivering supplies. We have worked to overcome these challenges, but we are still asking decision makers to make exceptions for health and humanitarian workers.
The pandemic and its consequences are far from over. Covid-19 has worsened the humanitarian needs in Yemen and Syria and other countries affected by war and violence. It is still difficult to know exactly how severe the longer-term impacts of the pandemic will be, but we already see the threats to hard-won development gains, as wages are lost, businesses of all sizes close and pre-existing health needs are worsened by additional strain on limited healthcare services.
We believe that a concerted response by states and humanitarian organisations is vital to alleviate the consequences of Covid-19 on war-torn countries and vulnerable populations. We are calling on states to support principled humanitarian action and facilitate humanitarian access so that humanitarian workers can reach those in need and remain close to affected populations.
And more importantly now, as vaccines for Covid-19 became available, we hope to ensure that people affected by conflict and violence who might otherwise be forced to the back of the line or forgotten about altogether, have equitable access to the vaccines. This includes vulnerable communities such as detainees and internally displaced persons, migrants and asylum-seekers.
Given that these populations endure the double burden of conflict and Covid-19, they need to be accounted for in global and national distribution frameworks. If there is not a collective effort to ensure that all populations including the most vulnerable have equitable access to the vaccines, then we run the risk of failing in the face of the pandemic.
Looking forward, we must use this once-in-a-generation disruptive event to reflect, adapt and innovate in order to improve responses for the affected populations. Now is the time to save lives. Governments must show increased solidarity as humanitarian aid alone is never the solution.
I feel very deeply for the victims of this dreadful pandemic. Every loss of life creates terrible pain for surviving family members, a pain that may never completely heal. We should always remember that none of us is safe until we are all safe from the Covid-19 pandemic.
*The writer is head of the Cairo Delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly