These countries have only a handful of ventilators

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Nurses receive training on operating ventilators provided by the World Health Organization in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo by: REUTERS / Khaled Abdullah

GLASGOW, Scotland — The Central African Republic has just three ventilators to serve the entire country, while South Sudan has only four.

“One need only glance at the shocking disparity in ventilator and ICU numbers in crisis-affected states to understand the very real threat this poses to life and limb.”

— David Miliband, president and CEO, IRC

That’s according to a report by the International Rescue Committee looking at preparedness among fragile and conflict-affected countries in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 — a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak

Follow the latest developments on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The humanitarian aid and relief organization says such countries are likely to face a “double emergency,” with the direct impact of COVID-19 playing havoc on humanitarian, economic, and security situations that are already fragile.

The report examines the potential impacts of outbreaks in South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, where prolonged conflicts and humanitarian crises have left health systems weak, with severe shortages of lifesaving equipment. According to the report, these four countries are home to 30% of the world’s population in need of humanitarian assistance.

South Sudan — where food insecurity is already high and recent travel restrictions are hampering efforts to contain locust outbreaks — confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on Sunday. The report says the country has just 24 intensive care unit beds for a population of 12 million people. The numbers are only marginally better in northeastern Syria, which has just 28 ICU beds and 11 ventilators in hospitals identified to quarantine and treat COVID-19 patients.

A lack of fully functioning hospitals in Yemen, and a shortage of doctors in Venezuela — which has 165 confirmed cases and only 84 ICU beds available — heightens the potential impact of outbreaks there. Meanwhile, limited hygiene and health facilities could allow the virus to spread at accelerated rates in densely populated camps for refugees and people displaced within their own countries.

“The scale, severity and speed of the outbreak will be magnified in fragile countries,” said David Miliband, president and CEO at IRC, in a press release for the report.

“One need only glance at the shocking disparity in ventilator and ICU numbers in crisis-affected states to understand the very real threat this poses to life and limb,” he added, saying that “the double crisis needs a double response.”

Vulnerable groups — especially women, girls, and displaced people — will be particularly impacted. The report suggests that, if overwhelmed by the pandemic, fragile and conflict-affected countries will likely face secondary and long-term impacts, such as increased insecurity and localized violence.

An immediate effort to prevent the spread of the virus is imperative, according to Miliband. “Now is the opportunity to take advantage of the short window of time in places like Yemen and Syria to forestall the disease running rampant,” he said. Ignoring “weak links” in the global health chain and failing to help the most vulnerable could have global consequences for years — or even decades — to come, he cautioned.

“The international community must equally ensure that underlying humanitarian vulnerabilities across these countries are not left to fester or to multiply,” Miliband added.

The report calls for fast, sustainable, and flexible financing for front-line NGOs and the removal of constraints on humanitarian action and services, “both conflict driven and bureaucratic.”

“New travel and movement restrictions related to COVID-19 must include humanitarian exceptions to ensure flow of humanitarian goods and personnel to those in need,” it urges.

The report also recommends that the international community develop an integrated response to the crisis and include the needs of the most vulnerable groups in national preparedness plans.

Visit our dedicated COVID-19 page for news, job opportunities, and funding insights.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.