The Challenge of Being a Humanitarian Worker During a Pandemic

Photo credit via unhcr.org Belatina, Latinx
Photo credit via unhcr.org

 “The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives and frees prisoners,” said J.K. Rowling, author, philanthropist, and founder of the children’s charity, Lumos. 

Observed annually on August 19th and designated by the United Nations General Assembly, the World Humanitarian Day recognizes those who dedicate or dedicated their lives to lend a hand. 

This year, the commemoration of this international day will be unusual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply because nations have less to give, and more people are in need, it makes humanitarian workers jobs more difficult.  

According to the United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview 2020, in 2019, between “conflicts and extreme climate events,” 167.6 million people needed humanitarian relief. 

Hunger, natural disasters, and displacements are not the only problem taking a significant toll on civilians worldwide. Violent conflicts that lead to kidnappings, attacks, and destruction against health workers and health-care facilities are also another way to deny care and aid to the millions of people in desperate need. 

As predicted by the intergovernmental organization, in 2020, over 168 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection, meaning that 1 in about 45 people in the world the highest figure in decades will be vulnerable to experiencing economic stress. If the trend continues increasing and the institution guided by Secretary-General António Guterres doesn’t collect $28.8 billion in funding, by 2022, more than 200 million people could be in need of assistance. 

Middle Eastern countries like Yemen and Syria continue to be the world’s worst in humanitarian calamity. However, Venezuela’s economic crisis has led to a deterioration in health services and clean water, and Haiti is still lagging behind. According to the United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview over 4.2 million people were food insecure by March 2020. 

On top of that, the COVID-19 crisis is the new obstacle humanitarian groups are facing. 

The Red Cross, UNICEF, World Food Program,  Action Against Hunger, CARE, Doctors without Borders, and the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have found themselves tight in many ways. 

These highly infectious diseases and many more are becoming more prevalent and harder to control, as revealed by the United Nations. A mix of “conflict, weak health systems, poor water and sanitation,” plus the lack of access to vaccinations, is making humanitarian workers jobs more difficult during the pandemic. 

The New Humanitarian informed that the coronavirus outbreak has disrupted cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes treatments across the globe and has plummeted health access in vulnerable communities like refugee camps, border crossings, and conflict zones. The Center for Strategic and International Studies also revealed that governments are focusing on the domestic impacts of the virus, while media outlets are also documenting their local medical and political responses. 

As reported by Jacob Kurtzer, Interim Director and Senior Fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda, “many refugee camps suffer from insufficient hygiene and sanitation facilities, creating conditions conducive to the spread of disease,” and socially distancing rules are almost impossible to follow. 

National policies are also affecting persons facing humanitarian emergencies, according to Kurtzer, when Colombia closed its border, they interrupted “a vital supply and healthcare lifeline for thousands of Venezuelans needing assistance.” 

Travel restrictions and the impossibility of keeping up with global demand due to the coronavirus is definitely making it impossible for humanitarian workers, but ironically this also reduced violent events.

The Sahara Reporters revealed that extremist group ISIS asked their fighters to avoid traveling to Europe so they can stay safe. In the most recent Al-Naba Newsletter, the terror group published an infographic about how to stop the spread of Coronavirus. 

As informed by The Center for Strategic and International Studies, there is another lesson that we should learn from the existing humanitarian responses: the shortages of equipment and personnel in hospitals show how humanitarian responses are “universally underfunded.” This lack of resources revealed how, during the ongoing pandemic relief, organizations had to allocate based on the places that reported higher distress. 

Policymakers in the United States should consult humanitarian organizations for guidance on ethically managing challenging operations with scarce resources,” wrote Kurtzer. “Many doctors are comparing the health care response to managing field hospitals in situations of armed conflict.”

Kurtzer also advises policymakers in the United States to “consult humanitarian organizations for guidance on ethically managing challenging operations with scarce resources,” and to “reflect on the nature of humanitarian work overseas and ensure it is not overlooked.” 

It is imperative to understand how vital humanitarian work is and how our contributions can have a high impact on society. A total of 42% out of 700 donors of the Charities Aid Foundation revealed that donating was a major mood-booster for them, while 96% said they “felt they had a moral duty to use what they had to help others.”  

As Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights activist, and clergyman once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” 

Supporting humanitarian workers in any way we can whether donating money, shelter, water, food, clothing, or medical supplies sets an example to our kids, other family members, and friends. This can even inspire them to pursue a career in the humanitarian field, whether through the government, a nonprofit organization. 

If you feel inspired to become a member or donate to one of the many non-governmental organizations worldwide, visit your local or international NGO guide to find resources and a library of entities waiting for your support. Remember that assisting those in urgent need can make the difference.