The spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is pressuring fragile systems and intensifying vulnerabilities for refugees across the world, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is especially true for refugees in the Middle East, Central Africa, and Europe where populations of displaced people may already find themselves in countries with food scarcity and weakened healthcare infrastructures. As national governments tighten restrictions in these regions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) struggle to provide aid.
“Organizations in Central and West Africa are spreading their distributions over many days, even delaying some until further notice,” Alexandra Lamarche, Senior Advocate for West and Central Africa at Refugees International, tells Food Tank.
With airlines suspending flights in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus, international aid organizations are reassessing tactics to provide on the ground help. Typically, they distribute food to many people at once. But COVID-19 restrictions have made that difficult, as organizations face limited capacity and spread out distribution days. “They are spending more money on something that could cost less, and when these responses are already underfunded it’s going to have dire consequences,” says Lamarche.
In May, the United Nations withdrew more than half of their humanitarian aid in Yemen because of coronavirus lockdowns and funding shortages. In Ethiopia, Libya, Mauritania, Niger and Somalia, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service is still suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Lamarche, who works in displacement settings in West and Central Africa, says that the regions’ heavy reliance on food imports makes people particularly vulnerable. As these countries restrict travel from NGOs, their threat to food insecurity increases. “Governments have closed their borders and limited the influx of much-needed food and medical supplies,” Lamarche tells Food Tank. “As a result, food supplies that remain accessible have more than doubled in price—leaving the country’s poorer populations with limited access to food.”
Even when organizations are able to distribute food, they fear it will be difficult to adopt protective measures to limit the spread of the virus. NGOs, like the World Food Programme and UNHCR, established new social distancing and health monitoring protocols to keep people safe at food distribution centers in camps.
But these measures are not transferable to all communities, says Lamarche, especially when communities are densely packed and have little to no access to clean water. As the UNHCR temporarily suspends resettlement travel, many people will remain in highly populated camps, making social distancing measures more difficult to implement.
As COVID-19 continues to affect the supply chains, the World Food Programme predicts that the pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger, bringing the number from 135 million to 265 million by the end of 2020.
In order to deal with the pandemic in their own countries, governments that would normally support NGOs have cut back funding, Lamarche tells Food Tank. But the engagement of major donors in these regions can help to keep the number of food insecure people from rising.
“[Global health measures] are just not realistic, these solutions do not work in displacement settings. And now we’re having massive food insecurity on top of already pretty dire situations regarding COVID,” says Lamarche. “Coronavirus is not inherently linked to food security, [food insecurity] is just a really terrible consequence.”
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lamarche