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UN CERF helps to maintain humanitarian air services amid COVID-19

30 Apr 2020


Credit: WFP/Jorge Diaz

By Lara Palmisano, OCHA Public Information in New York

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is severely hampering humanitarian operations. Border closures, reduced import/export and travel restrictions are limiting the movement of humanitarians and the availability of food, equipment, relief items and other essential needs. In countries where the world’s most vulnerable rely on humanitarian aid and supplies to fight the pandemic, cancelled flights and disrupted supply chains have hit disproportionately hard.

The UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) is helping to ensure that humanitarian operations can continue and aid workers are equipped to respond to the humanitarian consequences of the pandemic in some of the world’s most severe crises. Of the US$95 million that CERF has allocated to UN agencies to kick-start efforts towards the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) for COVID-19, $40 million was allocated to support the World Food Programme (WFP) in establishing essential international air services and supply chains in the absence of commercial service providers. These services will benefit the entire global humanitarian community, and complement WFP’s ongoing in-country UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) operations to sustain existing humanitarian operations and scale up new relief efforts.

Masks, coveralls, goggles, thermometers, and other medical items are prepared for airlift. Credit: WFP

This CERF funding enables WFP to carry out passenger air services to transport aid workers, conduct medical evacuations and transport relief items, including health supplies and equipment. Along with funding from other donors, CERF is also crucial in setting up vital logistics networks across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Europe to overcome the lack of commercial cargo flights and rapidly mobilize additional support.

One of these new hubs is situated inside Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport in Ethiopia, from which COVID-19 supplies, equipment and humanitarian workers are being transported by air across Africa, in partnership with the Ethiopian Government. The first cargo flight arrived in Ethiopia on 14 April, carrying aprons, face shields, gloves, goggles, gowns, masks and thermometers procured by the World Health Organization (WHO) for distribution to 32 African countries.

The new humanitarian air hub at Bole International airport in Addis Ababa is transporting relief workers and humanitarian cargo across Africa. Credit: WFP/Erik Forsman

In addition to CERF’s global allocations contributing to the pandemic response worldwide, the Fund has traditionally supported WFP’s efforts to provide logistics and air services to the broader humanitarian community in a number of crisis-affected countries. Since January 2020, CERF has allocated more than $7 million for common logistics operations in support of humanitarian emergencies in Chad, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger and Syria.

With the closure of borders and air traffic across many countries, these services are now becoming the last resort of providing air transport for aid workers and humanitarian supplies to continue serving millions of people in need, especially in remote locations.  

In Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province, where rising insecurity and flooding are already making it difficult for humanitarians to access people in need, CERF-funded air and logistic services are a crucial lifeline to make sure that humanitarians can continue to reach tens of thousands of people that depend on food and other relief items for their survival. New preventive measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, such as larger food rations to reduce the number of times refugees need to gather in larger groups to receive humanitarian aid, are posing additional logistical challenges.

In Mozambique, humanitarians are distributing food while observing new COVID-19 preventive measures. Credit: WFP/Rafael Campos

In addition to CERF, several Country-based Pooled Funds (CBPFs) are also complementing efforts to sustain and scale up humanitarian air services. In Afghanistan, humanitarians urgently needed to increase their capacity to access people in need after commercial flights had been suspended. The Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund (AHF) has allocated emergency funding to maintain essential domestic humanitarian air services, prepare for medical relocation and establish an international air bridge for essential humanitarian services. UNHAS is now continuing its flights to more than 20 destinations across Afghanistan, transporting humanitarian relief items and aid workers while also applying new measure to prevent COVID-19 from spreading across the country. All staff and passengers have their temperature taken upon entering the UNHAS terminal and wash hands prior to boarding the plane. Inside all aircrafts, social distancing of passengers is guaranteed by keeping one of two double seats empty.

A passenger at Kabul International Airport has his body temperature taken prior to boarding an UNHAS flight. Credit: WFP/Jorge Diaz

These allocations are part of a global effort by the CBPFs to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 25 April, 12 CBPFs have provided $69 million to COVID-19 pandemic responses.

Air services such as these are the backbone of making sure urgent aid gets to people in need. They remain one of the key elements of the global appeal. Without them, the global response could stutter to a halt. 

This support has been made possible thanks the fast and generous contributions to the pooled funds from: Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Canada, Cypris, Denmark, Estonia, European Commission, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Ireland,  Japan, Kuwait, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Republic of Korea, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Qatar, Basque Agency for Development Cooperation, Belgian Government of Flanders, European Commission and Jersey. 

All latest information on CERF and CBPF funding for COVID-19 is available in real time via