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Building shelter for the most vulnerable people affected by COVID-19: An interview with Medair Lebanon

11 Jun 2020


Medair’s civil engineer, Lubna, records measurements inside an isolation centre in order to design handrails, ramps and other shelter solutions that help people with limited mobility. Credit: Medair

By Sebastian Brandt, OCHA Public Information Officer in Beirut

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous effect on humanitarian work around the world. Apart from the direct health risks posed by the virus, lockdowns, restrictions and health measures in response to the pandemic burden the most vulnerable people in society in particular. The pandemic is also changing the way aid organizations are able to operate, which is forcing the humanitarian community to adapt to the new situation and adjust its interventions.

The international non-governmental organization (NGO) Medair has been supported by the Lebanon Humanitarian Fund (LHF) since 2019 to rehabilitate shelters that are below standards that allow people to live in safety and dignity. The project aims to protect families, children at risk and older people from the extremes of weather in both summer and winter, and ensure a safe environment in which they can live more comfortably.

Medair also adapts informal settlements for people with restricted mobility. Since the pandemic broke out and lockdown and self-isolation measures were adopted by the Lebanese Government, the project has shifted in response to the current situation. The organization is now not only improving shelter but also building centres where the most vulnerable people affected by COVID-19 can stay for self-isolation. OCHA talked with Medair staff about the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities in Lebanon and the challenges they are facing as humanitarian workers.

What has been most challenging while implementing humanitarian projects during the COVID-19 pandemic? How has Medair faced those challenges?

Even before COVID-19 arrived in Lebanon in February, we were putting together a risk management plan, and have since been regularly meeting as we adapt and steer our team and programme through this uncertain time! Some of our activities have switched to remote methods, e.g., counselling and mapping are now taking place by phone, while we now run an antenatal and prenatal phone consultation service. Other activities had to be put on hold, while others were essential and could only take place in person.

We have been having a lot of meetings with other members of the humanitarian community to ensure good coordination across multiple sectors as we have set up Rapid Response Teams and established isolation centres. This can be challenging – there is so much to figure out across so many different stakeholders in a new and continually evolving situation!

Like many across the world, our team has primarily been working from home, although the office has remained open, as humanitarian work is essential front-line work. This comes with all the challenges of remote management and communication. Our staff are also impacted by the anxiety about the future that is affecting everyone in Lebanon – not just COVID-19, but also the deteriorating economic situation. Despite all this, our staff are determined to keep working, face the risks, and find ways to keep supporting refugees and local communities.

What would you say are the main challenges for vulnerable people during the pandemic in terms of shelter?

With the movement restrictions that have been introduced to reduce COVID-19 transmission, people are having to stay at home more. That is significantly more challenging when your home consists of a tent or sub-standard building of just a room or two! Overcrowding was already a problem, and now that has increased stress still further. Restrictions and the deteriorating economy have also restricted even the small options that existed for earning income – people are struggling to get enough food to feed their families.

Within the shelter project supported by LHF, Medair provides shelter upgrades and tailored shelter assistance for children at risk and older persons. How have those activities been affected by the pandemic and the related measures by the Government?

As part of the shelter project, Medair provides rehabilitation and weatherproofing to buildings that are sub-standard, to help protect families, children at risk and older people from the extreme weather and to ensure a safe environment. We also tailor assistance for people with mobility issues to increase their accessibility and movement around their house or informal settlement. We had assessed and designed the interventions and were just about to start the work when the pandemic started. One of the restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 was the suspension of businesses – including construction contractors – which meant that the work had to be put on hold for about two months. We are very happy that they have been able to restart in the past week – our shelter team has sprung back into action!

This project has been revised and now includes an activity to adapt shelters to enable isolation, using savings from the project, which will be implemented in the coming weeks. Could you briefly explain the kinds of adaptations that Medair will do?

The COVID-19 response in Lebanon includes establishing and running isolation centres for refugees and vulnerable Lebanese who live in overcrowded locations, where home isolation is impossible. Medair will be ensuring that the centres are accessible for everyone, including those with mobility limitations. We have visited and assessed each of the four centres currently identified, and will be installing elements such as ramps and handrails. This is particularly important in a COVID-19 isolation centre, where there may be more elderly people or those who due to illness are temporarily struggling with mobility. Through LHF, we are also providing the fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms to improve the safety of the centres. Improving access and fire safety were part of our original pre-COVID-19 project; the flexibility from LHF meant that we were able to adapt this to places with a higher need. 

The selected building that will become a COVID-19 isolation centre in Hadath Baalback, North Bekaa, Lebanon. Medair will provide accessibility improvements through the support of the Lebanon Humanitarian Fund and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and plans to provide health care and site management. Credit: Medair

When you are visiting the sites for assessment, what is the response from people in need regarding the adaptations?

Currently, we do not have patients within the isolation centres, as we are still in the rehabilitation stage. For the adaptations we conduct in tents, public buildings and sub-standard buildings, people who struggle with accessibility barriers and their caregivers welcome our work and consider it really effective.

In these times, when it is difficult to meet face to face, how do you make sure that people in need can have their voices heard and can express their opinions and feedback?

Face to face is often one of the preferred ways that people give feedback; however, we also have a hotline which is open every working day. We have recently extended this to WhatsApp so that the cost of a call need not be a barrier. Our shelter team also rang each of our beneficiaries to keep them informed about the delay in activities. And today, our teams are out and (safely) visiting them in person!

Medair and team members from a water, sanitation and hygiene agency discuss shelter and water and sanitation needs inside the Hadath isolation centre. Credit: Medair

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a myriad of challenges apart from the direct health risks of the virus. As a humanitarian organization, Medair has had to adapt its programmes, including the shelter project funded by LHF, to the current reality. Medair’s ability to continue its work demonstrates the great adaptability of the humanitarian community.

As one of OCHA’s Country-Based Pooled Funds, the Lebanon Humanitarian Fund shows its strength as a flexible source of humanitarian funding that is able to adapt to changing circumstances – always aiming to assist and protect the most vulnerable people in Lebanon.