Opinion: PPE to body bags — meeting the needs of humanitarian workers on the frontlines

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
A health worker adjusts her personal protective equipment during a check up campaign for COVID-19 in Mumbai, India. Photo by: Francis Mascarenhas / Reuters

“Send more body bags!” was the urgent ask from many Red Cross and Red Crescent teams. We prefer to send more personal protective equipment, or PPE, to protect the response teams and the patients.

Now more than ever, humanitarian aid and health workers, and volunteers require our protection and respect while they are risking their lives to save other people’s lives in the midst of the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, which isn’t on the retreat, in many places around the world, nor it is showing signs of abatement. The virus has rendered medical facilities inaccessible for basic health care, vaccinations, surgeries, and deliveries.

We salute the humanitarian workers everywhere who lost their lives or were injured on duty and we celebrate the aid and health workers who resolutely keep carrying the torch. But rather than receiving appreciation, they become in some instances victims of stigma, aggression, and attacks.

From heroes to villains: Health care workers targeted in coronavirus-related attacks

ICRC recorded hundreds of acts of violence and discrimination against health care workers as a result of fear and frustration around COVID-19.

The figures coming from the field tell us that in 2019 alone, 483 aid workers were attacked: 125 killed, 234 wounded, and 124 kidnapped — in a total of 277 separate incidents, most of them in several Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, countries that don’t seem to be heading into the right path.

At this critical stage, I believe that humanitarian aid and health workers in every country, rightly deserve to have all the priority access to protective equipment and resources to deliver their most-needed services safely. For the purpose of reaching this goal, a more holistic and multilevel approach should be urgently considered.

Priorities at the national and institutional level

The time has come to effectively address the concerns of the frontline workers and volunteers in the MENA region by the local authorities. The pandemic put the discussions around the health care system in the spotlight regarding its capacity, accessibility, and allotted budget.

Local hospitals and clinics could be supplied with protective equipment if authorities allocate enough money to the health sector in their annual budget. It is a national priority to provide doctors and nurses with reliable PPE if countries want to prevent new losses among their medical teams, although we cannot ignore additional factors outside the finances that play an indispensable role in maintaining a strong and high quality health care system, such as adequate infrastructure, exceptional governance, and social stability.

Commitments at the international and humanitarian level

A host of international and humanitarian agencies and organizations have been committed to providing the utmost protection to their aid and health workers under the law. They spare no effort to ensure helping their staff in a timely manner, where and when is needed. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been relentlessly coordinating with all its societies since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. However, we remain less than 50% funded.

In another example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs fears that funding for aid operations in Yemen is going to collapse and that only 18% of the money required for 2020 had been received. In the COVID-19Global Humanitarian Responses Plan, it has been acknowledged that the attacks on health services have taken their toll on the health care facilities’ and workers’ performance and diminished access to health care services for patients and health care resources.

We must stick together as a global humanitarian body and collaborate on a unified call to supply our aid and health workers and volunteers with the necessary PPE.

Community participation

We know that cooperation and principled leadership have helped humanity to survive, thrive, and build civilizations and communities. This still holds true, especially during disasters and catastrophes. Every single person can, through awareness, facts, scientific evidence, and learning understand the irreplaceable role of aid and health workers and, most importantly, show them respect and a caring attitude.

We need to collectively message that stigma and disrespect are not acceptable, and indeed amplify our efforts to send thanks to the health workers and volunteers. An act of kindness goes a long way, but policy and decision-makers in their own countries can assist to promote their citizens’ positive behavior toward humanitarian aid and health workers and punish the negative ones.

Help us by getting more PPE and fewer body bags.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Hossam Elsharkawi

    Hossam Elsharkawi is regional director at International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Middle East & North Africa.