OPINION: Aid workers face challenges due to lockdowns

by Matt McGarry | Catholic Relief Services
Friday, 3 April 2020 16:00 GMT

Customers wearing protective face masks make their transactions through a plastic barrier as a preventive measure against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in a local grocery in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Vunerable communities will suffer as humanitarian work slows down due to measures to combat the pandemic.

Matt McGarry is CRS’ Sub-Regional Country Representative for the Philippines, Indonesia, Timor Leste, and the Federated States of Micronesia

When the mayor of Tacloban City in the Philippines announced a lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, humanitarian workers were alarmed. They knew the precaution was necessary to keep residents safe. But they worried about the impact the restriction would have on a displacement camp in the Anibong district.

Anibong was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and Typhoon Ursala in 2019. Many residents have been resettled inland but those waiting for resettlement live cheek to jowl in makeshift tarpaulin tents. In a lockdown, these people would be at high risk of infection and death. They would have no chance to practice social distancing. The coronavirus pandemic would hit Anibong with the force of a yet another catastrophic disaster.

Anibong represents just one of challenges aid workers face during the pandemic. For instance, the coronavirus poses equal risks for many refugee camps, poor urban areas, and other high-density communities in developing countries that have poor sanitation, limited access to water for hand washing, and often multiple generations living in cramped quarters. 

Restrictions on gathering in groups and travel also are impairing the delivery of food and other services, and the movement of aid workers. In cases such as the Anibong lockdown, the pandemic is creating a situation when the charities are unable to respond. The very precautions necessary to curb the spread of the virus are also hampering relief, both to the outbreak itself and to normal operations.  

The spread of coronavirus could have grave consequences for children and malnutrition worldwide. For example, my organization is participating in one of the school feeding programmes, providing meals for 550,000 children in nine countries. As a result of coronavirus, schools remain closed and they could be shut for up to eight weeks. We are working hard to find ways to solve these disruptions. One adaptation we’re considering is providing students with take-home rations, and we are working with local governments to distribute messages around health and sanitation.

Like everyone else in the world we are improvising and innovating to continue to do our work. In close coordination with the city’s government, our staff in Tacloban organized a mass transport of Anibong residents to a resettelement community in just six hours. They identified about 250 of the most vulnerable, confirmed their desire to move, rented trucks, carried furniture and other belongings, and completed their move to the new site. It was a scene reminiscent of an evacuation before a natural disaster. 

In Ethiopia, together with our partners, we are continuing distribution of emergency food rations to 1.5 million people by increasing the number of distribution days to reduce crowd sizes. In Uganda, one-day centralized market fairs that typically attract some 500 subsistence farmers, were split into smaller fairs with longer hours open over several days.

In Nepal, we are working with the United Nations and other organizations to reengineer information management and mapping technology previously used for earthquake response to use for COVID-19 preparations and response.