Should aid workers travel during the pandemic?

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Attendants are seen at Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Santiago, Chile. Photo by: REUTERS / Lucas Alvarado

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As COVID-19 continues to spread, many countries are in a state of lockdown, with border closures and travel restrictions worldwide.

But the basic human needs that aid workers strive to meet still exist. For this reason, some are advocating for humanitarian exemptions to those restrictions — allowing aid workers to travel to places in need of support.

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Others say that only puts vulnerable communities at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. After the first confirmed cases in South Sudan were identified among United Nations staffers who had recently arrived there, some blamed them for introducing the virus into the country.

“Aid workers have a great responsibility to make sure that we do not bring the virus to particularly vulnerable populations,” said Ole Solvang, director of partnerships and policy at the Norwegian Refugee Council. But anti-coronavirus measures cannot be more harmful than the disease itself, he warned, and “international travel can, in some cases, be crucial to make sure that we reach the people in most need.”

Many agree. “It is absolutely vital that humanitarian exemptions are granted ... to maintain our ability to respond to needs brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, as well as other lifesaving needs and existing vulnerabilities,” said Charlotte Slente, secretary-general at the Danish Refugee Council. That includes the movement of humanitarian staff, medical evacuations, and the transport of vital supplies, she added.

Jean Pierre Delomier, humanitarian action director at Humanity & Inclusion, called on other NGOs to join them in advocating for humanitarian staff to be able to move both between and within countries. “Border restrictions need to be lifted regarding the response we have to provide,” he said.

But along with others, he explained that personal protection measures and systematic screening could be implemented to ensure that workers aren’t carrying the virus.

If staffers test negative, there should be dedicated flight and travel authorizations to allow help to reach the most fragile contexts “where access is now almost impossible, but needs are rising,” said Jean-Michel Grand, executive director at Action Against Hunger’s U.K. office.

“In many of the countries where we work, the needs are already overwhelming. It would only take a gentle nudge to push people into crisis, and this is where conversations must be had around capacity and movement,” he said. Food insecurity is expected to spike in the next couple of months, with as many as 265 million people at risk of hunger. In the event of a natural disaster, “restrictions on movement could claim far more lives than COVID-19,” Grand argued.

Given that most organizations have local staff members on the ground, Akbar Nazriev, Ukraine country director for HelpAge International, said that — unless there is an emergency — there should be no need for international travel. “You can always help and provide support to your office in an affected country or to a network member or partner offices from a distance,” he said.

“Aid workers have a great responsibility to make sure that we do not bring the virus to particularly vulnerable populations.”

— Ole Solvang, director of partnerships and policy, Norwegian Refugee Council

Yet restrictions within countries also apply, with strict rules on when people can leave their homes. If staffers are unable to travel to local settlements or refugee camps, for example, this limits their ability to continue lifesaving programming.

As a result, the Danish Refugee Council is calling for increased access within, as well as between, countries. “While we of course acknowledge the need to introduce temporary and proportionate restrictions to contain and prevent the virus from spreading, essential domestic travel to reach those in need can be undertaken if due precautions are taken to protect both the communities we serve and our field staff,” Slente said.

Jules Frost, head of programs and partnerships at CHS Alliance, said that if aid workers do need to travel, the communities they’re entering should provide their consent, since challenges may emerge and there is a possibility of spreading COVID-19.

Adapting aid during the pandemic

While in-person support and the physical delivery of food, water, and shelter cannot be wholly replicated remotely, there are actions that organizations can take to ensure some level of aid is still being provided throughout the pandemic, the experts said.

For example, with the right precautions, all highlighted their local staff as being key in the continuation of certain projects. Although there may be some domestic travel limitations, exceptions are being made to deliver food and water.

Technology can also help. NRC is building up its capacity to deliver digital and remote education via radio in place of group sessions and allowing for social distancing as part of distributions. Solvang said the key is to distinguish between which vital forms of humanitarian assistance have to continue and what can be delayed or changed.

Catholic Relief Services, meanwhile, is conducting virtual training for health care workers, moving language courses and education for refugees online, and running virtual visits between social workers and vulnerable children.

Slente said that the Danish Refugee Council is offering cash-voucher assistance to support people affected by displacement who are likely to experience a partial or complete loss of income. The organization is also carrying out needs assessments via phone and has launched a survey among people on the move so that it can adjust its response to changing needs.

“In some locations, we are now providing our protection services and counseling, including psychosocial support, over the phone instead of face-to-face,” she added.

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About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.