Humanitarian Response

Who takes care of vulnerable displaced persons during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic intensifies an existing humanitarian crisis for the 41.3 million people living in internal displacement across the world. Many people living in displacement have fled armed conflict, violence, or human rights violations and have had to deal with poor access to healthcare, poor nutrition, and low income. Their living spaces are over-crowded with poor infrastructure and a lack of essential sanitary and hygiene items such as soap and clean water. These factors limit their ability to effectively follow preventive measures such as frequent hand washing, engaging in social distancing, and self-isolation. For displaced persons, the COVID-19 pandemic creates an additional layer of vulnerability, leading to greater fragility. 

Speaking to the camp leader in one of the IDP Camps, she said, “We don’t even have soap or hand sanitisers. Our people have to go out to find work and eat.”

In a situation where basic needs are unmet, proactive, and urgent measures have to be put in place to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in camps. The modes of relief distribution and support would also need to be modified to protect this vulnerable group. Humanitarian responses should prioritise the availability of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) facilities. Measures should also be put in place to manage the delivery of relief items such as food by reducing the concentration of people at distribution points per time, promoting safe distances, and calm during the distribution process. Visitation to the camps at this time should be strictly limited to relief distributions, and access for health workers with adequate monitoring of all instances to minimise the possibility of importing cases of COVID-19 into the camps. Ensuring access to food and other essential items limits the need for the displaced to leave the camps. Health workers and humanitarian support teams should also be provided with personal protection equipment. Information and awareness campaigns should be run in the camps to teach them how to minimise the risk of infection. Effective and trusted camp leaders should be enlisted to disseminate information and ensure compliance. This will improve the acceptability of the messages. 

While the practical implementation of these measures may be challenging in many camps, these are necessary measures for the prevention of COVID-19. It will be harder to contain the disease in over-crowded camps as the spread is likely to be rapid and devastating. Prevention, at this time, is a more effective option. 

To respond effectively, governments should work with local, regional, and multilateral institutions to formulate a coordinated response to ensure that humanitarian services continue to be provided in camps. Governments should take the lead, recognising that these are people displaced within their own country and should, therefore, be provided with the same health, social, and financial protection measures available to the general population. Internally Displaced Persons should be included in the National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19. 

As travel restrictions and supply bottlenecks persist with countries trying to stop the spread of the virus, humanitarian responses across and within borders will be significantly hampered, and this should be reflected in the response plan. 

When the dust settles, lessons must be learned as we move forward, recognising that camps and informal settlements are intended to be temporary measures and not permanent solutions. The issue of protracted displacement must be addressed by supporting displaced persons to achieve self-reliance aimed at rebuilding their lives. Given the right resources and support, displaced persons can leave the camps, contribute to their communities, and be reintegrated into the wider society with dignity.