New UN field hospitals will treat humanitarian workers with COVID-19

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Photo by: World Food Programme

NEW YORK — The United Nations is setting up five regional field hospitals that can treat U.N. and international NGO staff members sick with COVID-19.

New U.N. hospitals with pharmacies, operating rooms, and intensive care unit capacity are expected to open in Ghana and Ethiopia within the next four to six weeks, Amer Daoudi, senior director of operation services at the World Food Programme, told Devex in a recent phone interview.

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WFP is also working with the World Health Organization to quickly scout locations for additional regional hospitals in the Middle East and Asia to match an anticipated rise in sick humanitarian workers. Together, the agencies are setting up another hospital in an available private clinic in Costa Rica.

“We are seeing the spread of the disease is going to continue — and is going to continue to accelerate,” Daoudi said.

The U.N. previously established treatment centers for humanitarian workers in West Africa and Congo during the Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016. But it has never before set up humanitarian field hospitals at this scale, in terms of speed, logistical capacity, and location.

“I don't think it has ever been done. And these field hospitals were designed jointly by WFP and WHO and were manufactured according to the specs set by the two entities. It has a very, very sophisticated installation system. It's a structure that basically caters for what intensive care-type of wards are,” Daoudi said.

The inflatable, white walls of the field hospitals are designed to eliminate noise pollution and filter the air “so that it exactly matches what you will get in an ICU unit in any sophisticated hospital in the world,” Daoudi continued.

There have been “plenty of cases” of U.N. staffers falling sick with COVID-19 over the last few months, and a “few here and there” remain in isolation, according to Daoudi. The U.N. has medevaced 10 people since the start of the health pandemic and recently flew a sick worker out of Yemen to a hospital in Europe.

Transporting patients to overseas hospitals is not only costly but also involves health risks and logistical complications, especially during the pandemic. The U.N. has been coordinating with governments to arrange flight and land clearances and has had to locate available hospital beds in Europe.

While some governments are easing lockdown restrictions, coronavirus caseloads are expected to continue rising in many countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.

“We are seeing the spread of the disease is going to continue — and is going to continue to accelerate.”

— Amer Daoudi, senior director of operation services, World Food Programme

“You've seen what's happening in Brazil and in many countries across the globe. There’s quite significant underreporting. Yet the reported cases are accelerating, which tells you that the virus is going aggressively and is accelerating now,” Daoudi said.

WFP has also seen a recent increase in demand for personal protective equipment, diagnostic testing, and other medical supplies, such as ventilators. Over the next six weeks, the agency will be shipping approximately 64,000 cubic meters of supplies to 134 countries — enough to fill 104 cargo planes that have been contracted as part of the U.N.’s air bridge operations.

“That’s the tip of it, as the supply chains pick up. The demand is increasing,” Daoudi said.

A continuation of the air bridge operation is dependent on funding that WFP needs to secure by the end of July.

Moving humanitarian and development staff remains a challenge for relief groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières. Potential health risks have heightened the stress around travel restrictions, according to Brienne Prusak, spokesperson for MSF.

“At this stage of the pandemic, besides the direct medical care, we are actually quite worried about the mental health of our workers, as an indirect consequence of this pandemic. Limited movement possibilities, quarantine, family members affected, etc. are an important burden for our staff. We have support teams, helping and supporting our people to manage their stress,” Prusak wrote in an email to Devex.

Some MSF staff have become sick during the pandemic and, in some cases, have been medevaced home.

“As the whole air traffic is blocked, airports are closed, and so on, the emergency evacuations are also a big challenge for us. MSF will continue to do everything we can to repatriate staff to their country of residence when needed for medical reasons, but our staff is aware that it is more complex and will take more time than before,” Prusak said.

The new U.N. hospitals could support the availability of medical facilities within countries and help ease the load on strained health care systems, according to Daoudi.

“The fact is that you don't want to outstrip the national capacities in order to cater to the U.N. What we did is we are supplementing whatever capacities are there on the ground. Otherwise, if we come and say, ‘All right, let's take part of a hospital in any country,’ we're basically depriving the accessibility for nationals of that country,” Daoudi said.

The hospitals in Accra, Ghana, and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, each have beds for 92 patients at any given time. In addition to the Costa Rica clinic, WFP and WHO are also securing new field hospitals in undetermined locations in Asia and the Middle East.

INGOs can connect with the U.N.’s COVID-19 point person in each country to learn more about utilizing the hospitals. They will remain open for an indeterminate amount of time, Daoudi said.

“They will be there until we hopefully bring this disease under control and the vaccines are there and the disease is no longer a threat,” Daoudi 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.