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Our COVID-19 humanitarian response must move beyond borders

By Abby Maxman
Students wash their hands at a primary school in Zambia, in an area affected by an outbreak of cholera in 2018. Georgina Goodwin/Oxfam

An unprecedented pandemic calls for a response that engages with local experts and communities, carried out with a sense of shared humanity.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in scale and speed. We are facing an acute humanitarian, social, and economic catastrophe perhaps not witnessed since World War II. To save lives and recover, we will need to mobilize beyond our borders and work collectively with shared humanity. We are truly only as protected from COVID-19 as the least protected person is—your health is my health, and vice versa.

We can draw lessons from how Oxfam has sought to address crises over the past decades – responding to the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable, strengthening public health systems, and ensuring equality in our response across the world. A key lesson learned from our Ebola response is to engage with the public and communities and provide accurate information. Without meaningful and active community participation, COVID-19 will travel beyond barriers and borders.

Equally important is preparedness; the virus is still in its early stages in many developing countries, but fast action now can drastically reduce the impact. Providing access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene now will save lives. Clean water and a bar of soap are the most basic of sanitary provisions, but right now they are world changing.

Across the world Oxfam is upgrading water facilities in camps and health centers so that vulnerable people can drink and use clean water. In Indonesia, Oxfam and partners are supporting the government and community on public health promotion and advocating for equitable measures in COVID-19 management. In Kenya we are working with an organization founded by the youth of the Mukuru informal settlement (MuYI) to develop COVID19 awareness campaigns. In Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America we are distributing soap to thousands of people, providing hygiene materials and installing water tanks in quarantine centers, and coordinating with communities to raise awareness on social distancing.

But our humanitarian efforts always pale in comparison to those of the communities themselves.

As we have seen in so many crises, the first responders in this crisis have been ordinary people: family, friends, neighbors and local healthcare providers. Women make up 70 percent of the global workers in the health and social sector and are on the frontlines of the response. This frontline work, often coupled with care for their families, puts them doubly at risk. Oxfam is seeking to work with these first responders to meet needs and save lives for the most vulnerable.

Social protection for all

The other glaring truth is that as a result of the crisis millions of people across the globe are likely to lose their jobs and will need some sort of social protection. The most vulnerable will often be women and migrants working in the informal sector, for example as street vendors and domestic workers, often in urban slums, and in low-paid jobs. In Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, Oxfam is preparing to provide emergency cash support to the most affected, but we recognize that what is needed is a global system that provides a social safety net for all.

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Oxfam's partners helped to promote good hygiene among survivors of Cyclone Idai near Beira, Mozambique, in 2019. Peter Caton/DEC

Countries who would never have previously been considered as needing international humanitarian relief are facing crisis, as countries scramble to obtain lifesaving hospital supplies and build emergency wards. This reality should humble those of us living in rich countries and hopefully allow us to empathize more with the struggles so many of our brothers and sisters around the world face on a daily basis. It should serve as an alarm to developing and developed countries alike to massively improve their preparedness in public health.

While the reach of COVID-19 may be universal, the impacts will not be experienced equally. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, waiters in restaurants in Italy, tourist bus drivers in Kenya, Afghan day laborers in Iran, and gig economy workers in America whose jobs have disappeared, will be hit harder than those fortunate enough to have secure incomes. The impacts will also be more severe for women and girls, and refugees and undocumented persons.

We need to address years of neglect of public health services, and of the rightful role and responsibilities of government, not only in the poorest countries but also in the richest. Everyone should have access to quality healthcare, to clean water, and to be able to access social support, and the providers of these essential services should be remunerated according to their critical social value. The bill of this crisis should be born by the strongest shoulders, not by the weakest, and no government or company should stand to profiteer on the suffering of others.

Diplomacy and humanitarian funds

To respond to existing humanitarian crises like the ones in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen as well as the added global shock of COVID-19 will require us to do “whatever it takes.” Whatever it takes means robust investment in diplomacy to prevent and resolve crises, coupled with a massive injection of humanitarian funding. We need to reimagine an international system prepared to work collectively to prevent the tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes from ever happening again.

As friends and family fall sick, and economies go into free fall, to get through this and to recover we must embrace a way of thinking that lifts up those who have been or will become the worst affected. We need humanitarian access and aid for those in humanitarian crisis who have no access to facilities to wash their hands, and those in slums or refugee camps for whom social distancing is impossible. This crisis is profoundly reshaping our world for years to come, we must act now to save the most vulnerable, for we share the same destiny.

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