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UN humanitarian chief: All of humanity must fight back against COVID-19

30 Mar 2020


Children at a primary school take part in a handwashing demonstration. Credit: UNICEF 

Following is a joint op-ed by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, and World Health Organization Director-General, Dr Tedros, published online by The Washington Post:

The coronavirus threatens all of humanity. All of humanity must fight back.

To stop the COVID-19 pandemic, nations must look beyond their own borders.

The coronavirus is now reaching places where people live in war zones, cannot easily get their hands on soap and clean water, and have no hope of a hospital bed if they fall critically ill.

If countries with strong health-care systems are buckling under the pressure of coronavirus outbreaks, imagine what will happen in countries beset by deep humanitarian crises caused by war, natural disasters and climate change. Leaving COVID-19 to spread freely in these countries would jeopardize millions and risk tipping whole regions into chaos — giving the virus the opportunity to circle back around the globe.

On Wednesday, the United Nations system is launching a humanitarian campaign to fight the virus in the world’s most vulnerable countries. The coronavirus knows no borders, and we are only as strong as the weakest health system.

Countries now battling the pandemic at home are rightly prioritizing those living within their borders. But the hard truth is that they will fail to protect their own people if they do not act to help the poorest countries protect themselves against COVID-19.

More than 16,000 people worldwide have lost their lives to the virus. More than 370,000 infections have been confirmed. These are frightening times. People have legitimate fears that they will lose their loved ones, their livelihoods and their way of life.

Although older people are the hardest hit, younger people are not spared. Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant proportion of patients requiring hospitalization. In places where children are malnourished and already suffering from communicable diseases, that proportion is almost certain to grow.

Our teams are working round the clock to fight the pandemic. The World Health Organization is coordinating with governments and industry to boost the production of personal protective equipment. It has shipped this essential equipment to 68 countries and has sent 1.5 million coronavirus test kits to 120 countries. Now, the United Nations system is joining forces to expand the fight, specifically to help countries with weaker health systems. The campaign will need funding from the world’s wealthier countries to protect its most vulnerable — the right thing to do on humanitarian grounds but also as a matter of simple self-protection.

The effort will deliver essential gear, including laboratory equipment to test for the virus and medical equipment to treat people. It will install hand-washing stations in camps and settlements and establish airbridges and hubs across Africa, Asia and Latin America to move humanitarian workers and supplies to where they are needed most. And public information campaigns on how to stay safe and protect others will be launched.

We ask governments worldwide to do two things. First, strongly support this global humanitarian response plan. It will work only if it is properly funded.

Second, sustain funding to existing humanitarian and refugee response plans. Diverting funding from them to fight the coronavirus would create an environment where cholera, measles and meningitis can thrive, where even more children become malnourished and where extremists can take control. It would extend the breeding ground for the coronavirus.

People across the world want to know how long the pandemic will last. The truth is we do not know yet. The pandemic is still in its early stages. But we can say with certainty that the pandemic’s course will be determined by the actions taken by countries, communities and individuals.

It’s going to take time, it’s going to take solidarity, it’s going to take coordination. But the virus can be pushed back. During this fight, there can be no half-measures. COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity. The whole of humanity must fight back.