COVID-19 forces international aid groups to limit travel, rethink operations

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Refugees receive food aid from a helicopter drop at a distribution center in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe. Photo by: REUTERS / Philimon Bulawayo

NEW YORK — Multiple relief and development organizations are eliminating noncritical missions to limit staffers’ exposure to the novel coronavirus, while also creating contingency plans as the global pandemic continues to escalate.

“We are asking everyone, ‘If you can do a meeting virtually or attend a conference virtually, do it that way.’”

— Negin Janati, communications director for humanitarian response and emergency work, Save the Children

Mercy Corps, Relief International, Norwegian Refugee Council, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and Save the Children are among the nongovernmental organizations issuing new travel restrictions for staff while also rolling out prevention and response plans in impacted and at-risk countries.

“Hopefully it will not impact the work we are doing in the field, with refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people] as much. But as time goes by, it is also restricting training and global seminars where we are supposed to have strategies develop. It is the long-term work that could be affected on a global level,” said Tuva Bogsnes, spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

NRC is limiting international travel to critical work and shuttered its headquarters in Oslo, Norway, this week. It is also boosting its water, sanitation, and hygiene work in countries with weak health systems, such as Afghanistan.

“As this affects more and more countries, it is going to be harder for us to find ways for staff to go in and out of countries,” Bogsnes said.

The World Health Organization elevated the COVID-19 outbreak to pandemic status Wednesday. The virus has spread to more than 125,000 people across 118 countries and territories in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., according to WHO’s latest available estimates.

Experts at relief organizations described a dynamic situation that is requiring them to rapidly develop, and continuously review, staff travel and community engagement policies. The impact on lifesaving work, such as emergency humanitarian response in conflict zones, is still minimal, experts say, but the situation remains fluid. Supply chain shortages present another emerging concern, several global health and development experts told Devex.

The United Nations is also undertaking risk assessments “to evaluate how critical proposed travel is in relation to the risk posed to the traveler,” wrote U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric in an email to Devex. Some cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in countries, such as Iraq, that are already in crisis because of natural disasters or conflicts and have a large number of people in need of emergency assistance.

“To date, the U.N. and partners are maintaining humanitarian operations while taking precautions to ensure staff safety. U.N. agencies are currently assessing where and how humanitarian operations are being disrupted to try to identify solutions as quickly as possible,” Dujarric wrote.

Individual U.N. agencies are adopting their own health security protocols as well. The U.N.’s World Food Programme is limiting all international duty travel to mission-critical and time-sensitive work and postponing all seminars, workshops, and other large meetings, according to spokesperson Shada Moghraby. The United Nations Development Programme is encouraging staff to work remotely, which “reduces the footprint in our offices and mitigates the risk for all involved,” according to Angelique Crumbly, director of UNDP’s Bureau for Management Services.

Several international NGOs also shared their individual health security strategies with Devex:

  • Plan International has canceled all noncritical international travel and activities through March 31 and is looking at business continuity plans on how field offices could operate in low-, medium-, and high-transmission situations, according to spokesperson Davinder Kumar.

  • CARE International has moved to “business critical” travel but continues to undertake programs in compliance with local government restrictions. “The majority of CARE’s programs are continuing where CARE operates,” Chris Williams, director of security at CARE, wrote in an email.

  • Relief International is now “constantly” reviewing risk levels and authorizing travel on a case-by-case basis, according to Azadeh Hasani, the organization’s global humanitarian director. Relief International continues to respond to the health crisis in Iran and other countries, distributing protective health care equipment to hospitals.

  • Catholic Relief Services temporarily closed its Beirut and West Bank offices for deep cleaning, and its Cambodia office is now working remotely. Staff can only travel for “mission-critical” work. “It is changing so rapidly that, depending on the situation in each country, we may experience delays, including temporary office closures,” said Marieke van Weerden, director of staff safety and security.

The changes come as development events worldwide continue to be canceled or transitioned to a virtual format, and multiple governments — from the U.S. to Uganda — issue new travel restrictions.

One immediate issue for aid and development agencies is the sudden challenge in procuring health care supplies, according to Relief International’s Hasani.

“We now have a lot of our procurement teams trying to find these items and ship them. In some cases, we are not being able to find them. We really had to go to many suppliers and buy masks from one, goggles from another one,” Hasani said. “It wasn’t easy to find, and yes, in terms of pricing, of course they are more expensive than we would have initially planned for.”

Catholic Relief Services is also thinking through its “call to home” scenarios for international staffers, so they can return to their countries of residence if government travel restrictions escalate.

“The reason why we are going ‘mission-critical’ is not necessarily because of the virus. … It is because of travel restrictions governments put in place. If staffers are quarantined, they cannot work with communities where we need them most,” van Weerden said.

Save the Children has also issued a “blanket pause” on nonessential travel, according to Negin Janati, director of communications for Save the Children’s humanitarian response and emergency work. Save the Children’s China office remains closed, as staffers continue to work from home.

“With the number of cases and community transmissions that are present, we are asking everyone, ‘If you can do a meeting virtually or attend a conference virtually, do it that way,’” Janati said. “We have colleagues who are helping run pandemic-preparedness workshops throughout Asia, Middle East, and Africa. Their work is mission-critical, and they have to travel for it.”

The changes are challenging the traditional methods of work that Save the Children uses, leading it to pause and consider the feasibility of virtual training sessions or online partnerships and advocacy meetings.

“We live in a digital world and are used to doing things digitally, but there are certain things, like community engagement, that I do not know if people have considered how to do that exclusively online. We are just having to make it work,” Janati said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.