Foreign Affairs

A guide for humanitarian crises to come

The world is already facing a growing number of humanitarian crises, and now there’s coronavirus to contend with. Newsroom spoke to a visiting UN official about the ramifications of the virus, and how to better prepare.

As the coronavirus outbreak sweeps the globe, the man heading a team of World Health Organisation (WHO) experts assessing the situation within China has a simple message for the world.

Other countries, says Bruce Aylward, are "simply not ready” to handle the virus.

But what could that lack of readiness mean - and how does the world avoid a similar miscalculation in future?

During his inaugural visit to the Pacific, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Mark Lowcock spoke to Newsroom about the potential humanitarian effects of the coronavirus, as well as the need for greater anticipation of similar crises.

New Zealand’s decision to ban travellers from China following the outbreak has put it at odds with international organisations; the WHO - the UN’s public health agency - has pointedly advised against “unnecessary restrictions of international traffic” based on the outbreak to date.

Lowcock said it was up to individual nations to make their own judgments, but added the economic consequences of closing off their borders should also be taken into account.

“The reason why we as the UN have not advised in favour of travel and trade restrictions is because there are consequences of doing that, and because it’s not obvious that such restrictions provide much protection.”

“That's a feature of being a relatively poor country with relatively weak systems - all big problems have a potential to have the biggest impact on you.”

There were more straightforward public health measures that any country could take to prevent the spread of the virus, which those already predisposed to needing humanitarian aid most urgently need to put in place.

“Obviously countries which do not enjoy strong health systems will be the ones that might find it hardest both to identify and then to diagnose, and then to support people who end up with the virus.

“That's a feature of being a relatively poor country with relatively weak systems - all big problems have a potential to have the biggest impact on you.”

Some experts have already shared their fears about the virus wreaking havoc within densely populated refugee camps in areas like Bangladesh and the Middle East, but Lowcock said he did not believe any hasty adjustment was needed yet.

“The most important thing to do in those settings is to keep providing life-saving assistance to everybody…

“It's unlikely that this is going to lead to an obvious need to do different things in a life-saving sense for people displaced by conflict, or other people in densely populated areas - because people still need food and water and basic health services and sanitation.”

Lowcock said climate change had also been a major topic of discussion during his visit to Fiji and New Zealand (he heads to Australia next), with a doubling of extreme weather events in the last two decades meaning there was a greater need for readiness planning.

The UN's Mark Lowcock says the world must start to better anticipate - and head off - humanitarian crises like outbreaks of disease. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, overseen by Lowcock and funded by voluntary contributions from UN members, had grown in size from $450 million in an average year to $850m in 2019 - allowing the organisation to quickly release funds to the first and fastest responder following an emergency.

Countries also needed to build resilience and better understand the climate-related risks facing their country, making changes where necessary in areas like urban planning or economic diversification.

“I used to live in Malawi, for example: now, the vast proportion of Malawi's population are very reliant on maize-fed subsistence agriculture, and what that requires is 90 days of decent rain a year.

“Now, the number of years in which Malawi is getting 90 days’ decent rain is falling, observably and quickly, so Malawi is needing to think about different livelihood models.”

While some people worried about “compassion fatigue” in response to humanitarian appeals, Lowcock said that was not an issue as long as there was a clear and well-described need, and public confidence that any donations would get to the people who needed it.

“You can immunise a child against cholera in Mozambique after a cyclone for a dollar, UN agencies can feed a starving baby in Yemen for 30 cents a day - it’s a cheap way to save a life and the system is basically effective, but it does need to keep being funded.”

“We're working with scientists who believe that now it's possible four weeks in advance of any [cholera] cases to identify an area 250 metres by 250 metres, where there's a risk of an outbreak."

Lowcock said humanitarian agencies had faced “a series of unpleasant surprises” in 2020, such as a locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa and the recent displacement of nearly a million people within Syria.

One of his priorities was to emphasise an “anticipatory” approach towards humanitarian crises, using early funding to help vulnerable areas prepare for foreseeable events like an outbreak of disease and head them off.

“We're working with scientists who believe that now it's possible four weeks in advance of any [cholera] cases to identify an area 250 metres by 250 metres, where there's a risk of an outbreak.

“And if you identify the area a month ahead and you have got a plan already agreed to deal with it, you can have a response, which is often about water and sanitation systems, and maybe you can get to a point where there aren't any cases.”

Lowcock said countries needed to invest more money in gathering the data that would enable them to anticipate such disasters, while also sharing the information more widely and thoroughly.

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