High in the mountains of Afghanistan’s snow-covered Central Highlands, a group of my colleagues carries out an outdoor distribution of soap. Members of the community sit two metres apart, watching as our hygiene volunteers demonstrate handwashing techniques. Our volunteer are wearing face masks, and they too stand two metres apart. At the end of the demonstration, the community members walk to where soap on has carefully been placed on pieces of tarpaulin, spread out at six-feet intervals. Everything about this distribution is socially distanced.
Eighteen months ago, this scene would have seemed bizarre. Why so much space? Why face masks? Why do a distribution of soap outside, and not in a community centre? But just over a year after COVID-19 was discovered, these scenes are our new normal. On 11 March 2020 – one year ago today – the World Health Organization officially declared that the COVID-19 outbreak had turned into a pandemic. The declaration heralded the start of a great unknown: working from home, donning face masks, and being careful to socially distance while out of doors. Yet it quickly became familiar.
How we work has changed dramatically
The pandemic has radically changed every single aspect of our work, from the delivery of lifesaving nutrition and mental health interventions, to recruitment, to how we care for people. While we’ve had extensive experience responding to Ebola and measles outbreaks, we’ve never once responded to a pandemic caused by an illness the world had never seen before and had no vaccine against. To adhere to restrictions and protect our teams and the communities we serve, we’ve had to more carefully plan how to work, serve people, move staff, and transport and provide essential supplies.
Our future work will continue to be driven by the pandemic
As vaccine campaigns begin to roll out it seems there is a light at the end of this very long tunnel; but even then, our work will remain dramatically changed. While countries like Afghanistan and South Sudan have both received their first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine, the vaccination campaigns in these countries – and many of the others where we currently work – could be complicated by conflict, natural disasters, and limited infrastructure for the safe transport and storage of these vaccines to remote communities. We will perhaps be continuing our COVID-19 prevention and awareness activities long after we see a return to normalcy in countries like the Netherlands, where I grew up, or Switzerland, where I now live. We are, of course, ready to support vaccine delivery as much as we can.
And then, of course, there is the unintended side-effect of COVID-19: Hunger. The number of people on the brink of starvation around the world doubled in 2020 as jobs were lost and movement restrictions prevented many from earning a living, purchasing goods, or ensuring the transport of food across regional or international boundaries. David Beasley, the CEO of the World Food Programme, has referred to the situation as a hunger pandemic. We are already providing urgently needed nutrition and food security programming in some of the world’s biggest hunger crises. The seriousness of the hunger pandemic could mean that we expand these programmes or begin new responses in new hunger catastrophes.
And yet, the pandemic has not changed us
There is no doubt that our work is infinitely more complicated now compared to before the pandemic. We will likely feel the impact of the pandemic for at least another couple of years; not just in the communities we serve and in the way we bring hope to the hardest hit countries in the world, but also in the care we give to our teams, and how we come together to support one another in times of trouble.
And yet there are also many ways in which the pandemic has brought us closer together and reminded how important our people centred humanitarian support is. When members of our team in Lebanon delivered a hygiene kit to Hana, she told them, ‘Believe me, it is not the soap that you bring that matters the most, it is you, your presence.’ In Afghanistan, we have strong connections with local communities that enable us to keep working throughout the pandemic, so that children like 16-month-old Roya can still access the support she needs to recover from severe malnutrition. In numerous country programmes, we’ve adapted our cash programming to ensure that vulnerable families can still afford to pay rent and put food on the table for their children. As one woman told me: ‘All this support is so important, but the most vital is that you through it all, give us hope again, give us dignity again.’
In the last 12 months, the pandemic hasn’t stopped us from delivering urgent support where it was needed most. It hasn’t changed our mandate to go to remote and hard-to-reach locations no matter how difficult. It hasn’t changed our belief that each life matters. Despite the pandemic we responded to back-to-back hurricanes in Honduras, the conflict in Tigray, severe flooding in South Sudan, and an explosion at the heart of Beirut. Things are more complicated now, certainly; and while the pandemic has forced us to radically change the way we do things, it absolutely hasn’t changed who we are.
We remain, as ever, committed to the courageous families we serve and the extraordinary people who go with us. Each life is worth the extra mile – especially in a pandemic.
You can learn more about how we are coping with and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by subscribing to Medair Lives. This exclusive mini-documentary series will take you behind the scenes of our humanitarian responses and introduce you to the people who work with us and the communities we serve. For regular updates about our work, you can subscribe to our monthly eNewsletter.
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.