CORONAVIRUS THREATENS TO TURN AID CRISES INTO ‘HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHES’

Humanitarian aid

By Donnelly McCleland

Stringent new international restrictions on movement introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic are threatening the lives of millions of people across the world already caught up in humanitarian emergencies. UN agencies, aid groups and international experts have warned that the new restrictions, which have closed borders and ports, and severely limited the movement of key staff from Africa to South America and Asia, threaten a “dramatic” knock-on effect in countries suffering from conflict, extreme climate events and other crises. (The Guardian)

Food security – racing against time to prevent famines

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that famines of “biblical proportions” are becoming a serious risk as the coronavirus crisis threatens to double the number of people nearing starvation. In projections released on Tuesday 21 April, it was predicted that the number of people facing “acute food insecurity” stood to rise to 265 million by the end of this year, up from 135 million in 2019. The key driving factor is the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis, with wages, supply chains and humanitarian aid under pressure as a result of the outbreak. WFP Executive Director David Beasley in his address to the UN Security Council said: “At the same time as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic.” He continued, in the video conference, to explain the dire situation: “If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to Covid-19.”

Last week, the International Monetary Fund warned that the global economy was likely to experience the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, predicting global growth would contract by 3% this year because of the virus. This does not bode well for feeding programmes that are already experiencing a tremendous shortfall. This month, food rations were cut (by 30%) to more than 1.4 million vulnerable refugees in Uganda by the World Food Programme (WFP) because of insufficient funds. INcontext received numerous communications from South Sudanese friends, in Rhino camp, who are directly affected by these cuts, confirming that the reduction in food rations was already in effect. Lack of good, regular nutrition often leads to other health-related challenges.

Preventative health – hard-fought gains in immunisation at risk

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned, in the lead-up to World Immunisation Week (24-30 April), that shutting down immunisation services in the COVID-19 pandemic risks triggering a resurgence of diseases that can be prevented with safe and effective vaccines. According to the WHO: “When immunisation services are disrupted, even for brief periods during emergencies, the risk of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, such as measles and polio, increase.” As an example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year (2019), there was a measles outbreak which cost the lives of 6,000 people. According to WHO statistics, in 2018, 86% of children under the age of five globally were vaccinated, up from 72% in 2000 and 20% in 1980. The number of children paralysed by polio has reportedly been reduced by 99.9% worldwide. The UN warned last week that 117 million children are at risk of contracting measles because dozens of countries are curtailing their vaccination programmes as they battle COVID-19.

It has been argued that neglecting the vaccination programmes will result in additional strains on health systems if there is an outbreak. Some maintain that these services can easily continue to be provided while still following social distancing measures and by equipping frontline health workers with the essential protective equipment. The WHO advised that if immunisation services must be suspended, urgent catch-up vaccinations should be rescheduled as soon as possible, prioritising those most at risk.

Refugees – resettlement suspended – people in limbo

Owing to the COVID-19 global health crisis, and resultant restrictions on travel and access to many countries, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) deemed it necessary, in mid-March, to suspend all resettlement programmes. Some refugee families were directly impacted by these quickly evolving regulations during their travel, with some experiencing extensive delays while others have been stranded or separated from family members. The UN has stressed that this is a temporary arrangement as resettlement remains a life-saving tool for many refugees. Around 60,000 refugees who fled war and persecution are resettled to safe countries each year. They represent a tiny fraction of the world’s 26 million refugees. Canada, the current world leader in resettlement, expected to welcome about 30,000 refugees this year. However, the uncertainty of the current global health crisis means they may very well not meet this goal. Jennifer Sime, senior vice president overseeing resettlement and integration for the International Rescue Committee, expressed her concern regarding the suspension: “What’s important also is to ensure that this pause in the resettlement programme due to COVID-19 doesn’t become permanent and that this is not used as an excuse for stopping the resettlement programme, even at a time when COVID-19 is no longer an issue.”

Coronavirus response – poor countries at disadvantage

According to Time magazine: “As Africa braces for a surge in coronavirus cases, its countries are dangerously behind in the global race for scarce medical equipment. Ten nations have no ventilators at all. Outbid by richer countries, and not receiving medical gear from top aid donor the United States, African officials scramble for solutions as virus cases climb past 25,000.” The UN has stated that even in the best-case scenario, Africa needs 74 million test kits and 30,000 ventilators. John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed: “We are competing with the developed world. The very future of the continent will depend on how this matter is handled.” African nations soon realised they needed to work together and created a pooled purchasing platform under the African Union to improve negotiating power. Within days, the AU had landed more than 100,000 test kits from a German source. But Nkengasong went on to explain: “Africa isn’t holding out a begging bowl, instead, it’s asking for a fair crack at markets — and approaching China for ‘not donations, quotas’ that Africa as a continent can purchase.” More than 70 countries have placed restrictions on exports of medical items, putting Africa in a perilous position. But not all is lost as African countries are forced to look to each other, and those countries who are prepared to assist. Africa, where governments have historically underfunded health systems are now partnering in an effort that has been compared to going to war.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

In human terms, it is easy to become overwhelmed by all the crises currently being faced, but Christians have a different hope, and a source of comfort and inspiration that has inspired courageous efforts, ingenious inventions and boundless love through the millennia. Lyman Stone (in Foreign Policy) maintains that Christianity has been handling plagues for 2,000 years. He, together with many authors in articles across a broad spectrum of publications, have been reminding the Church and the wider world that Christians have made a tremendous difference in their world, throughout the ages, and now is no different. Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, explores a number of key factors which vaulted an obscure, marginal, ‘Jesus movement’ to the dominant religious force in the Western world in just a few centuries. One of those influential factors was their “remarkable response to plagues”.

The Christian response to plagues and crises begins with some of Jesus’s most famous teachings: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”; “Love your neighbour as yourself”; “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” Throughout history, the Lord has used His children – believers through the ages – to tangibly demonstrate His profound and life-changing teachings. And, it has often had the most far-reaching impact during periods of tremendous hardship and widespread crisis. Stone summarises some key milestones: “From the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century where Christians cared for the sick and offered a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God. To the more famous epidemic, the Plague of Cyprian, which triggered the explosive growth of Christianity.” It was not just Christians who recorded their heroic actions, “Emperor Julian would complain bitterly of how ‘the Galileans’ would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the Church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that ‘good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith’.” Compassion for those in need has been foundational to the establishment of many Christian humanitarian organisations and continues to be their driving force. Christ’s teachings led to the development of hospitals around the world, especially for the poor and those who cannot afford healthcare.

Central to all the accounts that have gone before us was a Christ-centred approach to those in need. The Lord assured us in Scripture that He “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Everything we need to fulfil what He requires of us is there. And He reminds us that He will never leave or forsake us, so just as He was with the Church in earlier centuries, so He is with us now. The Lord is doing a deep and far-reaching work in our world at this time, and He calls us to partner with Him. As one writer, Glen Scrivener, puts it so well: “Their [Christians past] impulse to move toward the needy, displayed in heroic sacrifice, is entirely Christlike; we dare not be less sacrificial in the love we seek to embody. May we—with our own pandemic—live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world.”

Please pray with us:

  • For a generous outpouring of financial support for the various life-saving humanitarian programmes, despite the global economic climate being strained
  • For a compassionate global response – from rich and poorer countries alike
  • For the Church to seize the opportunities the Lord is presenting, that His Kingdom may grow and advance

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REUTERS/ Leon Lestrade/ANA Latin America News Agency

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