by Pinky Madrid
Declared as a pandemic in March 2020, COVID-19 has had an unprecedented global impact. To say that preventive measures, government lockdowns, movement restrictions, market closures and supply chain disruptions have altered everyone’s lives is an understatement. That the impact has been disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable is indisputable. As world leaders, public health officials and the World Health Organization have scrambled to figure out the best ways to prevent and limit the transmission of the virus, ordinary people have struggled to choose between staying safe by following public health guidelines and finding ways to stay alive and put food on the table amidst deteriorating economic realities.
As vulnerabilities deepen and needs multiply, global resources for humanitarian assistance have either remained the same or decreased. Accessing the most vulnerable populations, meanwhile, has become more complicated during this global health crisis. Distribution of food and non-food items and other humanitarian and emergency interventions that require in-person meetings create health risks to staff and volunteers responding to needs as well as to the people receiving such assistance.
Like other humanitarian actors, MCC and its partners have navigated a sea of risk and uncertainty, particularly at the onset of the pandemic. Equipped with COVID-related guidelines and recommendations from local health authorities and sector leaders, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Interim Guidance in Scaling-up COVID-19 Readiness and Response Operations in Humanitarian Situations, and guided by commitments to ensure duty of care to protect staff and volunteers and to uphold the ‘do no harm’ principle, MCC has worked closely with partners to adapt humanitarian assistance programs to COVID-19 realities. Such adaptation has included the introduction of COVID-sensitive measures that shape how humanitarian assistance initiatives are planned for and implemented.
MCC is supporting vulnerable communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by integrating and, when possible, scaling up water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) components of its current humanitarian responses. MCC is also assisting partners in their efforts to provide essential health services. In Afghanistan and Zambia, MCC has worked with its partners to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers. As food security and livelihoods have been negatively affected by the pandemic, MCC likewise focuses on providing emergency food assistance and supporting vulnerable families in rebuilding and revitalizing their livelihoods.
Thanks to the insights of its partners and the communities in which they serve, MCC’s humanitarian assistance has proven adaptive to pandemic conditions. MCC also gains insights through coordination and information sharing with local and international humanitarian actors about effective ways to undertake humanitarian response adapted to COVID-19 realities. An MCC-supported food assistance project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, now distributes food rations for one-and-a half-months, instead of the more common monthly ration, in order to ensure recipients’ access to food for a longer period while also lessening the frequency of distributions and hence the need for recipients to gather in public places.
COVID-sensitive measures in food distribution centers include sanitation and hygiene protocols coupled with physical distancing, with smaller cohorts of recipients notified ahead of time to arrive during specific distribution periods. Home deliveries are also arranged for families unable to come to the distribution centers. Training and capacity-building activities originally planned as in-person events have been shifted onto online learning platforms where possible and appropriate. In each humanitarian initiative, MCC works with its partners to assess how to responsibly adjust planned assistance—from design to implementation to monitoring and evaluation— to minimize risk to partner staff and recipients alike.
MCC’s multi-pronged WASH interventions directly respond to the impacts of the pandemic, with the overarching goal of preventing transmission of diseases (including COVID-19) through improved hygiene practices. Provision of hygiene items to refugees, internally displaced people and other vulnerable communities has been a vital part of such WASH efforts, with MCC and its partners distributing hygiene and relief kits in countries such as Syria, Jordan, Mozambique and Ukraine. In many contexts where MCC and its partners had planned to distribute food assistance, essential hygiene supplies were added to food rations to help ensure that families could follow basic hygiene and sanitizing guidelines.
MCC also supported partners in building handwashing stations, including in camps or camp-like settings, distribution centers and schools. Whether interacting with aid recipients at distribution centers or during in-person deliveries, partner staff field questions from recipients about the pandemic, explain the real risks presented by the virus and offer guidance about simple measures recipients can take to protect themselves and their families. Across the past several months, local government authorities have often approached MCC’s church and community-based partners to help lead COVID-19 awareness initiatives, recognizing that MCC’s partners have the trust of the communities they serve and can thus effectively communicate key public health messages and correct widespread misconceptions about the existence, transmission and risks of COVID-19.
Even when an effective vaccine is approved, the multifaceted humanitarian impact of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come. The rollout of any vaccine will be uneven globally, reflecting global inequalities. Economies upended by the pandemic will take time to recover. The increased precarity experienced by vulnerable communities globally due to the pandemic and its economic fallout will continue. Over the coming months, MCC and its partners will continue to adapt their humanitarian responses to meet the pandemic’s ever-shifting impact.
Pinky Madrid was a humanitarian assistance coordinator for MCC in 2019 and 2020
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Note: This article was originally published in MCC’s 2021 Winter Intersections: MCC theory & practice quarterly under the title ”Navigating pandemic uncertainties in the provision of humanitarian assistance.” You can read the full volume here.