By: Mayeesa Rahman (BC'23)
Since its first reported case in November 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has undoubtedly changed the lives of millions across the globe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1.3 million people worldwide have died as a result of the virus, while others have faced hospitalization, job loss, and food and resource deficits. Another less-publicized consequence of the pandemic is its effect on international humanitarian organizations. International humanitarian relief agencies and non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders or CARE, work independently of the government to serve social or political goals such as humanitarian or environmental causes worldwide. One particular aspect of NGOs that has been detrimentally impacted by COVID-19 is their ability to provide relief to refugees.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the number of forcibly displaced people around the globe, 68.5 million, is the highest level of human displacement ever recorded. This figure includes 25.4 million refugees, an unprecedented number that indicates that the global refugee crisis persists alongside the pandemic. Many refugees are not granted access to government support for unemployed citizens. Consequently, they are forced to rely on humanitarian organizations for cash assistance and employment. Efforts to contain the pandemic have strained the budgets of humanitarian organizations worldwide, significantly affecting their ability to aid refugees. A recent survey in Jordan by the World Health Organization (WHO), for instance, showed that 35% of Syrian refugees lack a sufficient source of income and do not have a job to return to when pandemic restrictions are ultimately lifted.
Furthermore, refugees also face a disproportionate risk of exposure to the virus due to the conditions in which they live. Many live in densely populated refugee camps, where social distancing is difficult to maintain and sanitation conditions are severely lacking. A large proportion of refugees, such as the Rohingya Muslims who currently reside in Bangladesh - a third-world nation with one of the highest tuberculosis (TB) incidences in the entire world - have previously contracted TB, which increases their chances of contracting COVID-19 and makes them less likely to recover. Medical resources in refugee camps are also very limited, to the extent that the WHO reports that a coronavirus outbreak would totally overwhelm hospitals in just 58 days. Refugees are also often stigmatized by the general public in the countries to which they have been displaced, compounding their fear of admitting that they have COVID-19 symptoms and seeking treatment.
Humanitarian organizations should take initiative to implement outbreak response teams within refugee camps, ensure that there are sufficient medical resources in these camps, and provide economic relief to refugees. Their ability to do so has been significantly hindered/constrained by the financial impacts of the pandemic; however, many organizations such as the WHO and UN-associated humanitarian relief agencies have adopted the $2.01 billion 2019 Humanitarian COVID-19 response plan. This program seeks to fight COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable nations while maintaining funding for the treatment of other diseases that continue to persist in third world nations such as malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. Through this plan, many countries in need of humanitarian aid from international organizations have managed to control their rates of COVID-19 infections and their incidence of other diseases, according to the CDC. This is a hopeful statistic in the face of the global pandemic, but more can and should be done to aid the millions of refugees who continue to suffer due to COVID-19 and are almost entirely dependent on humanitarian organizations for aid.
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