This year marks the eleventh celebration of World Humanitarian Day On WHD, we honor all aid and health workers on the frontlines—and this year, the focus is on humanitarians who are providing life-saving support during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Every Woman Every Child interviews Jagan Chapagain—Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a member of our High-Level Steering Group—about needs and humanitarian efforts in the Middle East and North Africa region.

1.Can you tell me more about how the pandemic has affected the Arab states specifically, and what challenges and opportunities are unique to the region?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of peoples’ lives while amplifying inequalities, destabilizing communities and reversing development gains made in the past decade—including in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

While the impact of the pandemic varies across continents, many countries in the MENA region are experiencing complex emergencies, which are compounded by occupation, fragile health systems, weak disease surveillance, overwhelmed response capacities and low levels of public health preparedness. These factors leave the region extremely vulnerable to the rapid spreading of COVID-19 and further complicate all response efforts.

Millions of migrants, refugees, people who have been forcibly displaced, women and children bear the brunt of the health and socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic because of their pre-existing vulnerabilities. There are currently 11.5 million refugees, and 14.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region who reside in camps, informal dwellings or underserved communities, and lack regular access to health care and, crucially, water and sanitation services. Reaching IDPs, refugees, migrants, and returnees during this pandemic is a huge challenge.

Border closures and travel restrictions, lockdown and stay at home measures have contributed rising rates of violence against women and children and have a massive impact on people’s livelihoods and their capacity to cope with the outbreak.  Millions of jobs have already been lost and people are left with no means to provide for their families.

On top of this enormous public health and economic crisis, food prices are soaring. In Yemen, for example, where malnutrition rates amongst women and children are among the highest in the world, food and other essential goods are becoming inaccessible for millions. There is a very real concern that the pandemic could lead to an even larger food crisis for some countries in the MENA region facing complex emergencies.

Through our work with communities and government authorities across the world, IFRC and its network of 192 Red Cross and Red Crescent societies have significant insight and experience in responding to the COVID pandemic at global, regional and local levels.

There is a real opportunity for government authorities and international partners to work in solidarity and in a coordinated manner with humanitarian actors on the ground to help the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach people in this pandemic. This includes providing necessary access for Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers to carry out and expand their vital work and allowing critical movement of medical equipment and supplies to those who need it most.

National Societies across the MENA region have unique access to remote or hard-to-reach communities, groups and individuals who are amongst the most affected by the pandemic. Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are working around the clock providing mental health and medical care, distributing food parcels, hygiene kids and protective equipment to these vulnerable people.  As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, National Societies are adapting their response activities to growing crises and humanitarian needs and are well-placed to provide support to people affected by disruptions in education and increases in violence, discrimination and exclusion linked to COVID-19.

2.The recent policy brief published by the Secretary-General has set four priorities to guide the response to build back better from COVID-19 and achieve the SDGs. The first priority focuses on slowing the spread of COVID-19 and ending conflict. In what ways is IFRC working towards this goal? 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), comprised of 192 member National Societies works in a coordinated manner within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and with UN agencies at global, regional and country level to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  Our network of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their 14 million volunteers are delivering life-saving services, equipment, water and sanitation, while mitigating against the socio-economic impacts of this pandemic for the most vulnerable people. Protecting and supporting these communities requires a sustained and coordinated scale-up of Red Cross and Red Crescent local action alongside ongoing global response efforts.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, IFRC has supported National Societies to increase their health care services, community engagement and pandemic preparedness activities for vulnerable populations. Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies across the world have scaled up their response to address the different health and socio-economic needs in their countries. Frontline volunteers are also helping to trace contacts, isolate and treat people with COVID-19.

In the MENA region, IFRC has been actively working with governments, and has provided a set of clear recommendations to States and other authorities on how best to adapt their emergency response and work with humanitarian actors  like the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies.

This includes granting access to Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers in a number of MENA countries to carry out essential humanitarian work in hard to reach communities, health facilities and prisons.  Critical medical equipment—masks, goggles, face shields and supplies — must be allowed to reach health staff and first responders including those in conflict zones.  It is important that government authorities continue to provide this crucial flexibility and grant exemptions so that humanitarian organizations can carry out their vital work during this crisis and similar crises in the future.

As levels of unrest and violence increase due to the impact of COVID-19 exacerbating pre-existing tensions and conflicts in some countries in the region, reaching people in need continues to be a challenge in many countries. Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers are some of the best-placed people to provide localized responses as they are already trusted members of the communities.

Sadly, disasters do not stop in the middle of a pandemic. The devastating explosion in Beirut in early August that affected over 300,000 people is a reminder that disasters can happen at a moment’s notice and further hinder COVID-19 response efforts.  Now is the time to ensure we plan for the long-term. Our coordinated emergency appeal for 1.9 billion Swiss francs allows the IFRC to provide layered funding specifically for COVID-19 prevention measures to continue, on top of other humanitarian needs. Collectively, we are learning to live with this virus, while we work to slow its spread and scale up our planning and response efforts to meet the growing needs on the ground.

3.The brief also states that the COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to invest in women and ensure that they can be equal contributors in society through bridging the gender divide. Can you tell me more about the specific challenges facing women and children in Arab states, and elaborate on the guidelines for how organizations and stakeholders can do better? 

Some countries in the MENA region are facing double or triple crises as COVID-19 merges with existing humanitarian emergencies, conflict and violence.  This has exacerbated deep, pre-existing gender inequalities and threatened the well-being and safety of millions of women and children. Pre-existing, restrictive social norms and gender biases means that women and children are at a disproportionate risk of malnutrition, illness, increased violence in the home, more rates of child labour, and growing barriers to accessing education, support services and health care.

The increased risk of domestic violence during the pandemic is of particular concern. While stay at home measures means safety for many in a time of disease and uncertainty, for thousands of women and children, home becomes a place of violence and fear. Marginalized women and children who are disabled, or are from minority, refugee, migrant communities face even greater barriers to accessing health and mental care, basic services and legal support.

IFRC through its Protection Gender and Inclusion approach is ensuring the dignity, access, participation and safety of the people and prioritizing women and children in Red Cross and Red Crescent operations.  Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers in MENA countries are raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and ensuring that psychosocial support services are available to affected people. They are also focused on supporting the most affected and marginalised learners to access education and learning opportunities in safe and supportive learning environments.

In their auxiliary role to governments, national societies, with the support of the IFRC, play an important role in advocating against violence, discrimination, xenophobia and providing livelihoods opportunity for women.  Through their unique access to local communities, Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers build trust and by listening and adapting the needs of communities to the COVID-19 response programmes.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to magnify inequalities and marginalize entire communities across the MENA region, there is a clear need to ensure a strong protection, gender, diversity and inclusion approach in national COVID-19 pandemic response and humanitarian programming: health, livelihoods, shelter,  cash, migration response and risk-communication.  Targeted interventions to address these issues must be based on engagement, accountability, participation and a focus on individual and group agency within every community.

Access the article here