By Sophie Solomon, Access Adviser at UNOCHA

Accessing vulnerable people who need life-saving assistance following an earthquake, a deadly outbreak, or in the middle of a war zone, is hugely challenging. It is also at the heart of the humanitarian endeavour. Humanitarian organizations negotiate and advocate with all parties to conflict for safe, timely and unhindered access across the world, but the scope and intensity of the access challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the World Food Programme (WFP) had an average of 5,600 trucks, 20 ships and 92 planes on the move on any given day, delivering food and other assistance to people most in need. But how do we continue serving the most vulnerable people when public health measures restrict our movements, disrupt the life of the people we serve and challenge our supply chains?

We adapt, we innovate and we adapt some more.

A humanitarian air drop coordinator in Ayod County, South Sudan. Credit: Gabriela Vivacqua/WFP

Humanitarian operations have not stopped — across the world, UN agencies and NGOs are continuing to deliver assistance. But this work has been significantly challenged by flight suspensions, border closures, quarantine measures, lockdowns and curfews. This has drastically hampered our ability to move across and within countries, triggering delays, additional costs or partial suspensions of humanitarian activities.

All eyes are on containing and managing the virus, but humanitarians need to ensure that measures implemented by the authorities and humanitarian partners themselves are not undermining our ability to reach and assist people in need, in line with our principles. Over the past few weeks, the humanitarian community has worked closely with governments for operations to continue and for humanitarian workers to be considered as essential staff. In Colombia, for instance, the Government has issued an explicit exemption for humanitarian organizations in its national COVID-19 decree. Other countries have issued “laissez-passer” rules for humanitarian staff, allowing them to cross borders or including them in the list of essential workers. In some instances, implementation of these exemptions remains uneven: some humanitarian flights have been grounded for weeks, and not all humanitarian actors have been allowed to resume movements or activities. The dialogue with concerned governments to address these challenges must continue.

Health supplies arriving in North-east Nigeria. Credit: UNICEF

Positive steps have also been taken at the global level to facilitate humanitarian access in the context of COVID-19, including by the UN Security Council. For instance, the Security Council Sanctions Committee has streamlined procedures, and granted four humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on North Korea (DPRK) to ensure critical health supplies and equipment could be imported to support ongoing measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

On the operational side, to overcome access constraints, the humanitarian community has established an ambitious airlift operation led by WFP, soon to be followed by a European Union humanitarian air bridge. On 30 April, the first WFP cargo flight took off from the newly established Logistics hub in China, carrying 70 metric tons of medical cargo and personal protective equipment destined for West Africa. Two days later, the first passenger flight departed the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, South Sudan and Tanzania are among the 22 countries currently served by the UN humanitarian air services.

Community mobilizer raising awareness about COVID-19 in western Cote d’Ivoire.

In the field, humanitarian agencies are figuring out innovative ways to minimize the risk of COVID-19 while continuing to access people. The use of personal protective equipment, safe distancing, contactless biometrics, home delivery and other approaches are now the new normal. For instance, humanitarian agencies are increasing the proportion of emergency relief they can provide through digital money transfers on mobile phones over in-kind assistance. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has piloted contactless biometrics through an iris scanner to register refugees in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia, as well as to authenticate recipients for assistance. And where food distributions still need to take place, WFP and other agencies are trying to deliver several months’ worth of food at a time and insist that recipients remain six-feet apart.

Distribution of basic hygiene kits in Abyan, Yemen.

Of course, many of the access constraints confronting humanitarian actors pre-exist COVID-19. They include the dangers associated with conflict and insecurity; access constraints and impediments implemented by parties to conflicts; bureaucratic impediments imposed by national and local authorities; and sanctions and counterterrorism measures that can make it difficult to deliver assistance in areas controlled by certain armed groups. Outright fighting in Nigeria, Syria, Yemen and beyond challenge our ability to scale up. Aid and health workers all over the world endure attacks, including killing and maiming, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and looting of aid supplies. COVID-19 is increasing the risk of attacks, the harassment of humanitarian staff and health responders, stone throwing and other incidents, many of which are linked to fear, misinformation and stigmatization of COVID-19. The recent killing of a World Health Organization driver carrying COVID-19 samples in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State is a striking example of the risks faced by humanitarian workers in a pandemic context, where rumours and anti-foreigner sentiments trigger irrational fears and reactions.

Humanitarians have learned the hard way that access without community acceptance is doomed to fail. Trust can take a long time to build. And in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, fighting rumours through risk awareness and education is critical. As an example of the level of misinformation in South Sudan, 58 per cent of the rumours about the Coronavirus in that country were found to be untrue, according to UNICEF. It is equally important to take measures to secure and protect staff and local partners, including training and equipping them to respond in a safe and principled manner.

Access challenges pose a real danger to humanitarian staff and can restrict aid to millions of people who need it to survive. But with all challenges come opportunities. It is still too early to gauge the full impact of the pandemic on humanitarian operations and access, but we know that we will have to learn fast, adapt, adjust, innovate and adapt some more.


Humanitarian access in the time of coronavirus: We adapt, we innovate and we adapt some more was originally published in Humanitarian Dispatches on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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