We have plenty of experience responding to and implementing humanitarian programming in the middle of a viral outbreaks. For example, we responded to Ebola epidemics in both Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have vaccinated hundreds of thousands of children during measles outbreaks in South Sudan.
COVID-19 was a very different story.
We faced a whole new set of challenges when the pandemic was declared. Border closures, both regional and international, sometimes meant that our staff couldn’t get home to their families and we couldn’t get staff into the field. There were challenges in procuring and delivering items such as personal protective equipment and soap to the communities we serve. We had to adapt our programming to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many of our teams had to work from home, finding creative ways to manage teams and implement programming while also balancing childcare and home education duties.
In many countries, the crises we were responding to became crises within crises. It was a real shock. But the good things about shocks are that it can force us to adapt, think on our feet, and take stock of what we have.
We take a people-centred approach to humanitarian aid, putting individual people – not statistics or labels – at the very heart of what we do. When lockdowns started coming into effect, we worried that we wouldn’t be able to reach the families we serve with the same people-focused mindset. With social distancing and restricted movements, we worried that we would be less connected to the families we served.
So we adapted. In Jordan and South Sudan, we began implementing phone-based mental health support and care hotlines, providing a listening ear and advice to people who were struggling to cope with health issues or caring for loved ones with COVID-19. We heard that those personal connections meant so much more in the midst of a global health crisis, when anxiety was at an all time high and people worried about accessing support for their loved ones. Even if we couldn’t be there in person, our people-centred approach still made a world of difference.
We adapted our programing to address more unexpected challenges as well. In Afghanistan, our teams began hearing rumours about COVID-19: That drinking lemon juice would kill the virus. That you would die in an instant. That inhaling the smoke of burning roots could cure COVID-19. We immediately began delivering soap to remote communities, informing families as we did so about proper handwashing technique, physical distancing, and clear information about how the virus was spread. Our aim is to prevent the spread of rumours as well as the spread of COVID-19.
Think on our feet
As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere fast, we had to start thinking about how we would continue our emergency programming while still preventing the spread of the virus.
We had our first test on 4 August 2020, when a massive explosion tore through the centre of Beirut. Our team in the Bekaa Valley mobilised immediately, driving to Beirut with face masks and hand sanitizer in hand to assess the damage. Our colleagues socially distanced from affected families and from each other while visiting damaged homes, and wore face masks and sanitised hands often. Our emergency response included training staff and volunteers to deliver information about the spread and prevention of COVID-19, and we distributed hygiene kits that contained soap (among other items) to help prevent the spread.
More recently we’ve had our mettle tested by the Tigray crisis in Ethiopia, where fighting has forced thousands of refugees from their homes and across the border into Sudan. We have extensive experience in responding to crises like this – we’ve done so in places like Iraq, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bangladesh – and our past experience can be adapted to respond to this new crisis in the middle of a pandemic. True to form, our team in Sudan has responded to this crisis, as we conducted surveys, and positioned ourselves to provide the needed relief. Our commitment hasn’t changed: COVID or no COVID, we will still be responding to humanitarian emergencies when and where we can.
Finally, the pandemic made us take stock of what we have as an organisation. As it turns out, we have a lot.
We have deep connections to the communities where we work. Those deep connections have enabled us to continue our programming without losing the trust of the families we serve.
We have diverse and hardworking teams all over the world whose desire to serve families affected by conflict or natural disasters was unchanged by the biggest health crisis of our time.
We have colleagues who showed up to every single Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting, sometimes with connection challenges, who were determined to continue supporting vulnerable communities despite a new and sometimes confusing home office set-ups.
We have leaders who stepped in to help fill gaps on teams when we couldn’t recruit new staff to fill those roles.
And finally, we have each other. Despite the challenges we faced this year we still made each other laugh and still encouraged each other when things seemed tough. Above all else, we remained unwavering in our mission to support families affected by conflict and natural disasters in some of the most remote and devastated communities on the planet.
We continue to go the extra mile, as each life matters! Especially in the midst of a global pandemic.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.