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5 ways the coronavirus is making the world's most vulnerable a lot more vulnerable

A Yemeni doctor talks to a patient receiving

A Yemeni doctor talks to a patient receiving treatment and lying on a bed at a hospital in Aden, Yemen on May 12, 2020. People have been dying by the dozens each day in southern Yemen's main city, Aden, many of them with breathing difficulties, say city officials. Credit: AP/Wail al-Qubaty

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How are people in conflict-torn countries like Yemen, South Sudan and Syria affected by the pandemic? Crowded living conditions and insufficient access to water and health services put many of them at acute risk of infection, while lack of testing may exacerbate the spread of the virus.

The COVID-19 crisis adds new obstacles to how over-extended humanitarian organizations including UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, and non-governmental organizations deliver aid to those in need. But the pandemic's effects on humanitarian aid are likely to extend well beyond the immediate crisis. Here are five ways covid-19 may affect humanitarian aid:

1. More people will need help. As of December 2019, an estimated 167.6 million people — 1 in 45 people worldwide — needed some sort of humanitarian assistance. Of these, some 71 million had to flee their homes and are displaced within or outside their countries of origin. And crises — even before the pandemic — tend to last longer than in the past.

Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate existing crises in places like Burkina Faso, and northeast Nigeria, and further tax poorly resourced health systems in places like Venezuela and Congo. The pandemic is also likely to increase the numbers of people in need of aid as local economies suffer, and people lose access to remittances, livelihoods and basic resources. The World Food Programme projects that the number in need of food aid may double — to 265 million — by the end of 2020. UNICEF warns that shifting health resources to respond to covid-19 could result in up to 1.2 million extra deaths in children under 5 in the next six months.

2. Funding will be even more tight. Even before covid-19, levels of need around the world have been greater than the capacity of international humanitarian organizations to respond. In 2019 only 63 percent of needed funding was available to humanitarian organizations. Most of this funding came from wealthier donor countries. As of the end of April, the U.S. and other countries had donated only 13% of what humanitarian organizations needed for 2020.

The economic impact of COVID-19 on these donor countries may lead to a decrease in aid — including humanitarian funding — in the near term. The data on the impact of previous global recessions on humanitarian aid are inconclusive. The International Monetary Fund, however, has warned that the magnitude of the economic effects of covid-19 will be significantly more severe than that of recent recessions.

3. It may be more difficult to reach those in need. Restrictions on movement aimed at slowing the spread of the virus are already preventing humanitarian agencies from reaching populations in need. Border closures, flight cancellations, lockdowns of ports, and other movement and transport restrictions mean that aid workers and supplies cannot get to those who need them.

For example, a government-mandated lockdown of Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh prevented 80 percent of aid personnel from doing their work in the camps. Aid groups are advocating for increased access and reduced restrictions for humanitarian work, and for increased funds to safeguard humanitarian supply chains.

4. Non-coronavirus issues may take a back seat. As the world turns its attention to arresting the spread of covid-19 and caring for people with the virus, will other pressing humanitarian needs be ignored? Crises, including disease outbreaks, affect women and men differently due to differences in gender norms and roles, and they exacerbate gender inequalities.

There is some evidence that intimate partner violence has been increasing with the implementation of covid-19 control measures — while access to assistance has been decreasing. Intimate partner violence is the most common form of gender-based violence in humanitarian crises.

My research suggests that deep gendered biases within the humanitarian system affect what gets funded and what is considered urgent. One example of this is the humanitarian response to this type of violence.

Despite high rates of gender-based violence in emergencies, a review of humanitarian funding data from 2016-2018 by VOICE and the International Rescue Committee found that only .01% of all humanitarian funding was for work related to gender-based violence. Two-thirds of humanitarian programs to address this violence received no funding. Despite recent efforts to increase funding to violence prevention and response activities, many working in this sector are concerned that donor funding will prioritize other pandemic-related work.

5. Local organizations will play an increased aid role. In 2016, the U.N. convened the World Humanitarian Summit, which brought together humanitarian organizations and others to help reimagine and reshape humanitarian aid. One outcome of that meeting and related processes was a commitment to work towards giving greater power and more resources to local organizations to shape and lead humanitarian responses.

While some countries have made progress toward this type of "localization," overall the summit's targets have not been met. But the border and financial restrictions may now result in reduced international capacity and staffing. Together these factors may help accelerate the process of localization — and there is some evidence of this already.

The shift to greater reliance on local groups is not without challenges. These organizations may lack the capacity and technical skills to implement large-scale humanitarian responses, and they may not operate according to long-established humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality — or be equipped to meet donor reporting requirements and other criteria. In the short term, international humanitarian organizations have adjusted their relationships with local groups to continue their efforts during the pandemic. This approach includes reducing administrative barriers to funding — which means that these organizations have access to funding previously unavailable to them. It's not clear how this may play out beyond the pandemic response.

Crises create challenges as well as opportunities. Covid-19 may change the nature of the humanitarian aid system in the future through increasing needs and decreasing international capacity and resources. But this emergency may also provide the impetus for humanitarian donors and organizations to innovate and to accelerate reform efforts.

Chen Reis is clinical associate professor and director of the Humanitarian Assistance Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and co-author of” Becoming an International Humanitarian Aid Worker.” He wrote this for The Washington Post.

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