Humanitarian Assistance in the Grip of the Pandemic

di Eleonora Maria Mazza Micara - 31 Maggio 2020

from Rome, Italy

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00110

Extraordinary challenges call for extraordinary measures. The spread of COVID-19 is paralyzing economic growth and destabilizing health systems’ capacity all over the world, but above all, it is worsening current humanitarian crises. According to latest reports from the World Food Programme (WFP), an additional 130 million people could suffer from starvation by the end of 2020 (WFP, 2020), wrecking humanitarian progress so far. WFP Executive Director David Beasley underlines the severity of the risks the humanitarian community will be facing in the second semester of 2020. “We are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe: millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the specter of famine a very real and dangerous possibility” (WFP, 2020). 

When a Health Pandemic Risks of Becoming a Hunger Pandemic

This threat alone could sweep away humanitarian improvements and operational success recorded this year. This is an open call for international solidarity, and additional efforts are required by the international community in order to prevent fragile countries from economic and sanitary downfall. The humanitarian enterprise is facing new challenges, emergency situations that the pandemic has stretched, and as the prolonged health pandemic hinders the crisis-management approach of humanitarians, the aid community requires additional funding to endure and guarantee its missions on the ground. If developed countries are struggling in timely addressing the pandemic, imagine those developing countries that to a great extent depend on foreign aid for political stability, economic support and social assistance. Fragile systems will not be able to sustain sanitary and economic pressures, and for several countries like Yemen, Somalia and Venezuela this translates into long-term emergency situations and into the real possibility of becoming ‘failed states’. 

Moreover, as Beasley remarked during the virtual session of the UN Council on the Maintenance of International Peace and Security, the worst-case scenario the aid community might confront could entail a hunger pandemic (WFP, 2020). WFP Executive Director reminds us that “it is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects” (WFP, 2020). From the Sahel to Venezuela, local access to basic health care and water supplies is limited per se, but now that the threat of COVID-19 has spread all over the globe, it has endangered the existing precarious system endorsed by the humanitarian enterprise in these unstable locations.


Challenges for Humanitarian Action

The pandemic will have severe repercussions on the modus operandi of the humanitarian community. “Resources may be diverted to support COVID-19 efforts, affecting budgets for assistance, movement restrictions are likely to affect the mobility of supplies and staff including the ability to conduct field work, and humanitarian delivery costs may increase as a result” (Food Security Information Network, 2020). Moreover, there’s a risk of new humanitarian crises as a result of the upsurge in coronavirus cases. The restrictions placed on freedom of movement by several countries to prevent the spread of coronavirus have negatively impacted the rural developing world, since both farmers and products have difficulties in accessing the markets. By restricting movement and access to certain products, there is a consequent increase in food prices without this translating into a profit for the producer.

Therefore, for local farmers and sustainable communities in developing countries, the risk of economic instability and food shortage has become real. Additionally, the return of thousands of informal workers in the cities to their villages has contributed to an increasing economic burden on families in the countryside and consequently a loss of income. This global pandemic has exacerbated the conditions of the most vulnerable: the elderly, those mentally unstable, those physically impaired, the young, women, refugees, displaced people (OCHA, 2020). At different levels, due to their pre-coronavirus status, all of them are highly exposed to a higher health impact from COVID-19, as they can lose access to special treatments and assistance (OCHA, 2020).


Coordinating Efforts: COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan

As an attempt to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on the vulnerable communities in developing countries where humanitarians operate, the international community has launched the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP), “the primary fundraising vehicle to respond to the humanitarian impacts of the virus in low and middle-income countries and support their efforts to fight it” (WFP, 2020). Most humanitarian agencies have requested the endorsement of this response plan, which would give priority to the most vulnerable in humanitarian operating areas, including the elderly, women and children (WFP, 2020). “UN agencies like UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF, as well as their NGO partners are installing hand-washing stations wherever they can – in refugee camps, registration sites, transit centers, sites for internally displaced people, and in host communities” (OCHA, 2020).  

“Since the plan was first launched on 25 March, 1 billion dollars in donor funding has been raised” (WFP, 2020). Thanks to this funding, it was possible to install hand-washing services in the most vulnerable places and distribute the sanitary equipment including facemasks, gloves, and respirators for protection to the local population (WFP, 2020). With regards to the delivery of these supplies, new hubs are being developed for air transport, and the World Health Organization has created a portal for online training (WFP, 2020). According to the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC), the response plan has to include also the launch of public campaigns to alert the most vulnerable on the way the virus is transmitted (UNRIC, 2020). 

Source: OCHA

Despite the outstanding efforts from donors, the updated Global Humanitarian Response Plan establishes that additional financing is needed up to almost 7 billion dollars in order to address the parallel increase in both humanitarian needs and the costs related to the provision of basic health-support services  (OCHA, 2020).


Priorities for Action

Humanitarian missions are experiencing a dramatic change in the operational mechanisms of the field missions. Humanitarians in the post COVID-19 era will have to adapt to unprecedented humanitarian needs, shift market-based approaches, ameliorate delivery tools and mitigate risks with regards to supply corridors (WFP, 2020). At the top of the priority pyramid there is the necessity to ensure the unrelenting flow of resources through air corridors and the positioning of resources not too far from the most vulnerable countries (WFP, 2020). It is of uttermost importance to provide alternative means for food assistance, such as diverting to take-home ratios to replace the traditional school meals provided to the most vulnerable (WFP, 2020). The humanitarian community has to focus on anticipating, adapting and simplifying its operational apparatus in order to optimize resources and ease financial instruments (WFP, 2020). 

COVID-19 is challenging the aid community’s ability to address humanitarian crises. Prioritizing delivery epitomizes the humanitarians’ need to respond in a timely manner to the current global crisis with an additional pressure deriving from the coronavirus outbreak. Recent humanitarian achievements have revolved around six major areas: health, water sanitation and hygiene, food and agriculture, logistics, education and overall protection (OCHA, 2020). As of May 2020, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is “establishing a multi-partner COVID-19 Global Information Management, Assessment and Analysis Cell to complement the country-level identification of risk, scenarios and projections, which will help identify and adjust COVID-19 responses at the population level, complementing decisions and interventions at institutional and structural levels” (OCHA, 2020).


Source: OCHA

Forecast: Possible Case Scenarios

The latest report by ACAPS (2020) envisages three possible case scenarios: global containment, partial containment and no significant containment of the pandemic. In the case of global containment, the report underlines an effective response to the pandemic, as it suggests that most countries will continue to enforce containment measures and guarantee essential services, while pre-pandemic humanitarian missions will endure thanks to additional funding and shift to remote management (ACAPS, 2020). The second case scenario forecasts a containment policy that is not homogeneous: several countries will relax containment measures or will not be able to enforce them effectively, and the poorest countries will face devastating effects on their economies, as numerous families will lose their jobs (ACAPS, 2020). Humanitarian assistance will be insufficient to meet the needs caused by the pandemic, or even suspended (ACAPS, 2020). 

Last but not least, the third unfolding of events symbolizes the worse case scenario: containment measures are reinforced through emergency legislation, unemployment and criminal activities will intensify and there will be a significant increase in the death toll (ACAPS, 2020). Humanitarian action will be compromised, and it will augment global inequalities: the poor will become poorer and the aid community will fail to respond in a timely manner (ACAPS, 2020).  


Before and After COVID-19

Physical distance, hand-washing stations, hygiene kits, temperature checks, education via radio and TV, online classrooms, home-ratio meals, personal protective equipment: these are just a few of all the contemporary containment measures adopted by the aid community (OCHA, 2020). “Aid agencies are now practicing physical distancing at distribution sites, dividing people into small groups and asking them to stay 1.5 meters apart from one another” (OCHA, 2020). 

Source: OCHA


Consequently, the humanitarian enterprise is adapting its operational structure to the viral nature of the pandemic, but it has a long way to go in order to overcome the multi-faceted threats posed by COVID-19. These times require additional participation from the international community. Better practices are pivotal in guaranteeing the containment of coronavirus in developing countries. COVID-19 has created a domino effect in all countries affected by pre-existing humanitarian crises, each of them now facing an increase in cases, even in remote and rural areas. If the coronavirus outbreak cannot be stopped, humanitarians must strive for its containment. 


References (A-U)

ACAPS. (2020). COVID-19 SCENARIOS: Possible global humanitarian developments over the next six months (online). Available here (Accessed 3 May, 2020).

Food Security Information Network. (2020). Global Report on Food Crises (online). Available here (Accessed 5 May, 2020).

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2020). Before and After: How COVID-19 is changing humanitarian operations (online). Available here (Accessed 10 May, 2020). 

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2020). Global Humanitarian Response Plan COVID-19  (online). Available here (Accessed 10 May, 2020). 

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2020). In the battle against COVID-19, aid groups are achieving results for vulnerable communities (online). Available here (Accessed May 5, 2020).

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (2020). UN humanitarian chief: After COVID-19, it’s in everyone’s interest to help the world’s poorest countries (online). Available here (Accessed 10 May, 2020). 

United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC). (2020). COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (online). Available here (Accessed 2 May, 2020).


References (V-Z)

World Food Programme. (2020). UN issues $6.7 billion appeal to protect millions of lives and stem the spread of coronavirus in fragile countries (online). Available here  (Accessed 8 May, 2020).

World Food Programme. (2020). WFP Chief warns of hunger pandemic as COVID-19 spreads (online). Available here (Accessed 1 May, 2020). 

World Food Programme. (2020). WFP COVID-19 Response Common Services Plan (online). Available here (Accessed 5 May, 2020).


Autore dell’articolo*: Eleonora M. Mazza Micara, BA Politics, Philosophy and Economics, MA in International relations presso l’Università LUISS Guido Carli di Roma, e MA in Governance and Global Affairs presso l’Università MGIMO – Moscow State Institute of International Relations di Mosca.


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