MSF navigating 'blockages everywhere' in wake of COVID-19 outbreak

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Brice de le Vingne, head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ COVID-19 task force. Photo by: MSF

NEW YORK — Médecins Sans Frontières is searching for creative solutions to continue its lifesaving work amid the fast-spreading novel coronavirus outbreak, with new travel and personal protective equipment restrictions complicating its current operations, according to Brice de le Vingne, head of MSF’s COVID-19 task force.

“We are trying to cope with new constraints in the world, and it is very challenging just to maintain our activities.”

— Brice de le Vingne, head, MSF COVID-19 task force

All MSF offices in Europe are closed, and many MSF medical personnel are grounded there, unable to reach their operational centers across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, de la Vingne told Devex. MSF is among a growing list of humanitarian relief agencies that are rapidly developing COVID-19 prevention and treatment plans, while also managing internal issues, including their employees’ health and travel limitations.

“We have 10 million patients in the world, and we have a lot of constraints of movement and supplies,” de le Vingne said in a phone interview. “We are trying to cope with new constraints in the world, and it is very challenging just to maintain our activities.

“We are the largest medical NGO in the world, with hundreds of offices, missions, and hospitals, and now we have blockages everywhere. For an organization like MSF to have all of those blockages is super difficult for us to be able to maintain our medical projects and take care of our patients,” de le Vingne continued.

Another major challenge is that MSF, which has over 30,000 staff members at any given time, is facing a shortage of personal protective equipment — a concern that many other relief organizations and governments have emphasized is set to grow in the coming days and weeks.

One reason for this shortage is that the European Commission issued a new regulation Sunday that prohibits the export of personal protective equipment to countries outside of the European Union. But shortages are also increasingly found in Europe; nearly 1,700 health workers in Italy have been infected with COVID-19, according to MSF.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday called for the private sector to boost production of and access to protective equipment for health workers.

“Our supplier doesn’t supply us with any more face masks, but also the movement of the masks is an issue now. We are trying to deal and to find a way to get an exemption from this,” de le Vingne said.

MSF is also seeking humanitarian travel exemptions for its dozens of Europe-based medical professionals who are no longer able to reach Guinea to launch a new malaria campaign, for example, or reach other countries with vulnerable health systems where they normally carry out work.

“Governments know very well how to ban, but they do not know how to deal with exemptions,” de le Vingne said. “At the moment, I have many colleagues who were supposed to leave for Cameroon and Afghanistan, and they are blocked. They cannot leave the EU now.”

MSF is negotiating with individual governments in Africa and other impacted regions to allow its workers to enter a country, self-quarantine for 14 days, and then engage in their work.

“The only way for us to support Africa is blocked. We are adapting as we speak, and we are trying to find solutions,” de le Vingne said.

Work responsibilities are being shifted to medical experts who are already within the countries where MSF operates.

“We are very creative. We will find solutions. We are shifting tasks, we are adapting, we are putting new responsibilities on other people. We are trying to cope with the situation. We are trying to reach out to decision-makers, and you need to negotiate with decision-makers,” de le Vingne said. “My priority is to cope and sustain our current projects.”

MSF is engaging in COVID-19 response and treatment work in four hospitals in northern Italy, as well as in China, Hong Kong, and Iran.

“The worst-case scenario is that the situation we are seeing will last until September. We need to adapt and prepare for the long run, and we definitely have to put a lot of resources and energy into a vaccine and treatment,” de le Vingne 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.