A man at a shelter in Guatemala. Photo by: Conred / Latin America News Agency via Reuters

Since 2017, CARE International has been publishing the most underreported humanitarian crises each year. The impact of COVID-19 in 2020 has seen challenges in humanitarian reporting grow as lockdowns and restrictions prevent access. International media has also focused its attention on the health, social, and economic crises caused by a global pandemic in its own backyard — with politics in the United States and Europe as well as the global Black Lives Matter movement a focus of reporting in 2020.

“COVID-19 has undoubtedly made it harder for international journalists to get out into the community, and near impossible to travel across borders in search of a story,” Peter Walton, CARE Australia CEO, told Devex.

“So now more than ever, the work of local journalists is crucial. They are best placed to understand the complexities of a story, and their local knowledge, connections and dedication are to thank for continuing to shine a light on humanitarian crises during the pandemic.”

The humanitarian crises themselves have also grown under the pandemic globally. In 2019, African countries represented the vast majority of the underreported list. But with the pandemic, the 2020 list includes a larger number of regions, spanning across Central America, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific in addition to Africa.


The global burden of underreporting

To produce the report, CARE focused on a list of 45 humanitarian crises in 2020 where at least 1 million people were impacted. Analyzing more than 1.2 million online media articles between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2020, the number of articles determined which were the least reported. Arabic, English, French, German, and Spanish language reports were part of the analysis.

Political instability combined with floods and landslides meant that Burundi’s humanitarian crisis, impacting 2.3 million people, topped the list of underreported events. Just 429 media articles were published, or 0.04% of the total media analyzed. And this despite historic elections drawing media attention to the country — but not the humanitarian crisis.

“Although it’s hard to say how much media coverage these countries would have received had it not been for COVID-19, the virus and its social and compounding economic repercussions are undoubtedly making already difficult situations even more challenging.”

— Peter Walton, CEO, CARE Australia 

In second position was Guatemala, appearing on the list for the first time. An estimated 3.3 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian aid due to ongoing drought causing food insecurity — a crisis further exacerbated by the pandemic. But just 542 articles covered the crisis.

Also new to the list is Ukraine, with conflict in the Donbas region leaving 3.4 million in need of assistance — a high proportion of whom are elderly or people living with a disability. Just 702 articles reported the crisis.

Pakistan was also added to the list as the seventh most underreported humanitarian crisis. Despite an estimated 49 million people impacted by conflict, floods, displacement, and malnutrition in 2020, only 1,515 articles highlighted the humanitarian situation. Papua New Guinea appeared for the first time since 2016 as the ninth most underreported humanitarian crisis. Over half of PNG’s population — or 4.6 million people — has been affected by natural disasters impacting water, hygiene, and food security.

“Although it’s hard to say how much media coverage these countries would have received had it not been for COVID-19, the virus and its social and compounding economic repercussions are undoubtedly making already difficult situations even more challenging,” Walton explained.

“Papua New Guinea, for example, is already battling tuberculosis, HIV/AIDs, and malaria epidemics, as well as the resurgence of polio. Although the country has avoided significant outbreaks of COVID-19, the already-stretched health system has been stretched even thinner by pandemic preparations.”

Competing for attention in a global pandemic

Covering these crises on the ground has been difficult for both international and local reporters. Still, video calls have enabled reporting to occur remotely, or local news reporters to engage wider audiences to open up media opportunities. The greatest challenges in impact have been competing with domestic crises.

“In times of crisis, we have observed that politicians and the media have a tendency to turn inwards,” Walton said. “With domestic stories unfolding minute-by-minute, journalists and editors have very little time to consider lesser-known international stories.” Citing Australian media as an example, Walton said that two cyclones in the Pacific region — Cyclone Harold in April and Cyclone Yasa in December — received little local media coverage as they coincided with an increase of reported COVID-19 cases in Australia.

The pandemic is something that everyone is experiencing and can relate to, and the humanitarian sector should be using it as a jumping off point for engagement, Walton said.

“Before 2020, the global north may not have been able to relate to curfews, school closures or shortages of goods in stores, experiences that are common in parts of the world experiencing humanitarian crises,” he said.

“The pandemic has highlighted how interconnected our world is in terms of health and the economy, and in some cases this has made international humanitarian stories more topical.”

As the pandemic continues into 2021, Walton hopes that media coverage will not come at the expense of other important issues such as climate change or gender inequality.

“Climate change is fuelling humanitarian crises by making disasters more frequent and natural resources scarcer. And in times of crisis, it is often women and girls who are hit the hardest. The pandemic threatens to undo decades of progress towards gender equality, and it will be important that issues like this don’t slip off the media radar.”

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.