Insufficient PPE pushes NGOs to consider making their own

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Health workers wear personal protective equipment at an isolation unit in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by: Simon Davis / DFID / CC BY

NEW YORK — Lack of personal protective equipment continues to challenge several international humanitarian organizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as they chart their way forward in a new normal of heightened public health risks.

“It is definitely not sufficient. We have been able to get more orders than in the earlier phase, but some suppliers are asking for prepayments, and there is an issue of ensuring that we have the right quality of products,” said Pascale Meige, director of disaster and crisis operations at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “We have a lot of restrictions for exports and for transiting goods. The challenges are very much there, still.”

Domestic travel restrictions and lack of coordinated funding have been cited as the most pressing concerns for humanitarian and development organizations in their COVID-19 responses.

But limited PPE availability, price gouging, and demands for prepayment are also still impacting international NGOs, more than four months after the World Health Organization first declared a public health emergency. The Norwegian Refugee Council and IFRC are among the organizations exploring a new avenue to scale up necessary PPE supplies: Supporting their own local production efforts.

“We are far from being able to supply the National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies with what they ask for, but luckily have some more flexibility. We have some societies producing masks, and we hope this can be allocated throughout our networks,” Meige said. “The supply chain challenges are still very, very present for all organizations.”

“It is not common for us to work on this, we don’t usually produce and position ourselves to produce medical-grade equipment, that is usually not our role.”

— Will Carter, global program lead, COVID-19 response, Norwegian Refugee Council

Some of the 192 Red Cross Red Crescent national societies are now procuring PPE locally and producing other necessary items, according to Laura Ngô-Fontaine, an IFRC spokesperson.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been sourcing local protective equipment to keep ambulance workers safe and the Turkish Red Crescent is producing masks for volunteers and health staff in a small number of hospitals.

NRC has also begun exploring how to produce masks, hand sanitizer, and soap in Kenya, Eritrea, and Jordan, according to Will Carter, global program lead of NRC’s COVID-19 response work. That could include utilizing market-based support, or looking to refugee youth livelihood programs for production.

“It’s not been across the board, but there have been some countries that we have been asked to look at whether we could help produce some of the items there,” Carter told Devex.

“It is not common for us to work on this, we don’t usually produce and position ourselves to produce medical-grade equipment, that is usually not our role. But there are some situations where soap and hand sanitizer and face coverings have been helpful,” Carter continued.  

NRC has procured face masks and gloves from China and shipped them to country offices. About 80% of its programs remain operational, although lack of sufficient PPE is one of the factors limiting its work, according to Carter. There are also issues of “integrity of the supply itself,” Carter explained.

“We cannot go and do the usual procurement practices, and look at how it is produced. We do not have the capacity to go and do in-person assessments, or the time to look at that, too,” Carter said.

Experts from both aid agencies explained that they expected COVID-19 to continue to impact their work and beneficiaries well into 2020 and possibly 2021, calling for a sustainable solution on PPE.

“Until a COVID-19 vaccine is found, produced, distributed, and administered to the general populations around the world, we are preparing for the current challenges to be the ‘new normal,’ for as long as it exists,” NRC spokesperson Tuva Raanes Bogsnes wrote in an email to Devex.

PPE demands could rise as COVID-19 cases are expected to increase in more countries over the next few months.

“In many of the countries we work in, the level of transmission and prevalence have not manifested as clearly as they have in Europe and the U.S. and Latin America. What is true now, perhaps that is not the situation we will be in a couple of months,” Carter said.

More governments asking all citizens to wear masks could also further strain supply chains over the next several months, according to IFRC’s Meige.

“We are far from closing the gaps, in terms of closing the needs. There are more requests for masks than we can fill. The demand is only on an increase for now, and even if the supply is gaining a bit more momentum, is not to the level we need, for sure,” Meige said.  

There is more room for international leadership to support supply chains and markets, according to Elinor Raikes, vice president and head of program delivery at the International Rescue Committee.

“The UN must lead on, and governments must support logistics/supply chain efforts to ensure the most vulnerable are reached with supplies (tests, PPE, etc.), including by facilitating airbridges from regional hubs to deep field locations,” Raikes wrote in an email.

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

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.