Peter Maurer: Covid-19 and Conflict Zones: How the Pandemic is Impacting and Shaping Humanitarian Action

IIEA17th June 20206min
On 3 June 2020, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), gave an address to the IIEA. This briefing summarises how the ICRC has adapted its ongoing work to become more relevant to the response and prevention of this pandemic. It also looks at how COVID-19 has shaped the work of humanitarian organisations.

Author: Eóin O’Keeffe

Introduction 

In his introductory remarks, Mr Maurer said that as COVID-19 has spread around the world and an increasing number of countries have become affected by the pandemic, appeals for financial contributions from NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have continued to increase. He explained that organisations such as the ICRC were able to react and adapt extremely quickly to the implications of COVID-19. A lot of their ongoing work was reviewed and adapted to become more relevant to the response and prevention of this pandemic. However, reprogramming the ICRC’s activities towards COVID-19 had been extremely costly.

He said that in response to the coronavirus, the ICRC is prioritising areas such as: the support of health facilities, particularly in conflict scenarios; equipping health facilities with protective and preventive materials; bringing water and sanitation facilities to refugee camps, vulnerable communities and detention centres; and educating and training volunteers who are able to respond to new challenges in their communities.

 

COVID-19 and Humanitarian Affairs

Ten key factors were identified by Mr Maurer as being particularly relevant to the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. COVID-19 has come on top of a series of other long-standing challenges
    The ICRC was already focusing on conflict, violence, poverty, and climate change and its impact on people’s livelihoods. COVID-19 has been an additional, complicating factor, which has increased people’s vulnerabilities.
  2. There are new triggers for humanitarian problems
    While there have been pandemics before, the ICRC has never had to deal with a pandemic that simultaneously affected almost every country in the world. Nor have they had to deal with the secondary implications on the most vulnerable at such scale. These secondary socio-economic implications disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. Furthermore, lockdowns have crippled the informal sectors which many vulnerable groups depend on.
  3. COVID is the first global example of the link between humanitarian concerns and public health concerns
    Although humanitarian workers do not underestimate the need for and importance of lockdowns, they are, however, very concerned about the social, economic and humanitarian implications of the lockdowns. These implications are bigger in scale and scope than those faced in the past.
  4. Global problems need local responses
    While global problems need global solutions, COVID-19 strikes countries in very different ways depending on government structures, economic advancement of societies, robustness of health services etc. The impact of COVID-19 is very local and therefore the response must be tailored, local and contextual.
  5. There is a need to learn from past experiences
    When framing responses, it is very important to look at the lessons learnt from previous experiences of dealing with pandemics. It is important to keep both the health sector and social systems in perspective, a narrow and unilateral responses will not work. If the response is purely health-focused, mortality rates will shift to other areas. This is especially true of vulnerable communities.
  6. Health is not the only big problem
    The ICRC’s response in some of the most fragile contexts are deeply affected by the associated political and societal forces. These associated political and societal forces include: the stigmatisation of health workers because they are fighting COVID-19; the exclusion of those who are suspected of being affected by COVID-19; and the injustices of treating patients in an unequal way, thus creating tensions in society. The number of challenges that must be factored into any response to COVID-19 go far beyond normal health system responses.
  7. Responding to this pandemic raises a number of specific challenges
    First, the issue of scaling ICRC’s operations to the needs presented by a pandemic are vastly different to the local impact of conflict and to many of programmes with which ICRC is more familiar. Second, availability of data is a problem, as it is extremely difficult to frame a response when it is almost impossible to fully understand the dimensions of the problem. Third, COVID-19 has been heavily politicised in many areas. Leading a professional response in a highly politicised area and navigating rumours and fake news can be very challenging.
  8. Virtualisation and localisation are powerful accelerators of humanitarian response
    The pandemic has massively transformed the humanitarian sector and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. There has been a complete shift to working online, accompanied by a significant shift to more local operations as a result of lockdowns. Now, plans which are created virtually, are being put in place at a local level.
  9. No one can do it alone
    COVID-19 will inevitably create new and lasting partnerships, as the delivery of humanitarian services is impossible without the help and coordination of others. New value chains will  need to be created on the basis of research carried out by academics, civil society and governments in order to deliver treatments, vaccines and preventative measures to tackle COVID-19. This is new territory for many humanitarian organisations.
  10. ICRC is sticking to its mandate
    In reacting to this pandemic, ICRC has maintained its traditional focus on the most vulnerable people and most vulnerable contexts including: women, children and the elderly; refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps; prisons; densely populated urban areas and the urban displaced. This has allowed the ICRC to use the expertise, which is already in place but has required the organisation to develop new approaches and responses.

 

Opportunities

Mr Maurer noted that some positive outcomes have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. Organisations across all sectors have had to adapt their work processes and embrace virtualisation, and this has been especially true of humanitarian organisations. In turn, localisation is now regarded as an opportunity, as it anchors humanitarian assistance to the local communities.

In his view, multilateral and multi-stakeholder platforms are essential as they can create new financial instruments which can respond at scale to problems such as the pandemic. Mr Maurer sees this as an opportunity to change the traditional form of financing humanitarian communities.

 

Conclusions

According to Mr Maurer, the ICRC is presented with enormous dilemmas every day. The foremost of these is the need to balance the priorities of protecting staff with the need to deliver essential services to the affected populations. Creating procedures which keep the ICRC staff safe, while allowing them to deliver these services is extremely challenging, especially with the added complication of COVID-19.

In an attempt to deliver practical and professional responses, managing political feasibility can present a dilemma. In a humanitarian context, needs-based humanitarianism is a priority. However, in highly charged and politicised contexts, politicians may take positions, which go against what a practical and professional responses demand. The ICRC must then negotiate a humanitarian response in such a politicised context, and this can be challenging.

While the ICRC has embraced the new virtual way of working, it can present difficulties. Finding the correct balance between the traditional way of responding and the possible new virtual response is very challenging. Returning to the pre-COVID-19 modalities of delivering humanitarian assistance is not an option for the ICRC or other humanitarian organisations, as the new tools which virtualisation offers are very significant. However, there is no humanitarianism without the proximity to people.

Mr Maurer concluded that it is vital to strike the right balance between the traditional and the virtual approaches to humanitarianism and to negotiate new arrangements for humanitarians, so that they can effectively and impactfully deliver on their mandates without perpetuating problems.