Syria + 2 more

Winning the global fight against COVID-19 depends on bringing relief to war-weary families

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GEORGE GRAHAM

In a crowded camp in Idlib, Syria, a fourteen-year-old boy recently told our team, "We're used to the war now. Even when it hits nearby, we hide in caves. But with this virus, we can't hide." With these words he captured the fears of 149 million children living in high-intensity conflict zones around the world.

In one significant way, the COVID-19 pandemic could not have hit at a worse time. The world is currently reeling from more conflicts than at any time since 1946 and a record 70 million people are displaced by war, persecution and violence. As a result, the coronavirus threatens to heap more death and suffering on countless families who are in the worst possible position to stay safe and care for each other.

And in an age when we are all connected in so many ways, no-one one is safe until everyone is. Our response to a global pandemic is only as strong as our protection for the most vulnerable. That protection depends on warring parties putting down their weapons, and finally finding a way to stop conflicts from spiralling into 'forever wars' that bring entire countries to their knees.

Where violence erupts, hunger and disease follow

Warzones are tinderboxes for the virus where the consequences of an outbreak could be catastrophic. Where violence erupts, hunger and disease follow. And too often health and sanitation systems have been devastated, often by the unconstrained use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

It is impossible to fight a pandemic when bombs are falling, or go to a hospital when bullets are flying. Health ministries and aid organisations like Save the Children can't scale up vital health services with fighting in the streets or get help to families when armed groups block the way.

In places where medical care is almost non-existent, prevention is critical. Yet the demands of daily survival make social distancing so much harder in places wracked by conflict, and it is nearly impossible in crowded and chaotic camps. Proper, widespread testing for the virus has been a huge challenge even in peaceful countries. It is almost inconceivable in places blighted by war, where we may have no idea of the pandemic's true scale.

Syria has just entered its tenth year of conflict. Hospitals have repeatedly been attacked and half the country's doctors have fled the country. In the northwest, nearly a million people have been forced to flee fighting in recent months. Should the virus take hold in the area there is just one ventilator for every 19,600 people.

When our partners talk to families about staying safe from coronavirus they just shake their heads. They're trying to find places to live, a lot of them are still in fields or makeshift shelters and struggling to get enough food and safe water. Now they face a new and deadly invisible enemy.

Decimated health systems

It's a similar story elsewhere. Covid-19 is taking hold in Yemen, a country shattered by five years of war. There is one ventilator for every 56,500 people and only half of health facilities are fully functioning. Mali has been the scene of regular outbreaks of violence since 2012. Nearly a quarter of health facilities in parts of the country hit by conflict are out of action and families are afraid of going to those that are open in case they're caught up in attacks. While the Government is trying to get more ventilators, there is currently just one for every 339,000 people.

By contrast in the UK there is currently one ventilator for every 8,300 people -- a number the Government has acknowledged is nowhere near enough.

In too many places, the carnage continues

A vital first step to help protect children from further danger would be for fighters to heed the UN's call for a global ceasefire. Only stopping the fighting will give war-ravaged countries any chance of preparing.

The UN says eleven countries have so far 'responded' to the call, but in reality the picture is mixed. There are encouraging signs from Cameroon where armed groups have laid down their weapons and the ceasefire in northwest Syria appears to be holding.

In Yemen the Saudi-led coalition declared a temporary, unilateral ceasefire but the fighting grinds on. At least 38 civilians were killed in the two weeks that followed the ceasefire announcement.

And in Afghanistan last week there were multiple attacks, including a devastating assault on a maternal and newborn health clinic in Kabul. Newborn babies and women in labour were killed in cold blood in a cowardly and calculated attack on women, children and health workers. In too many places, the carnage continues.

All over the world, people are coming together to look after each other in the face of the unprecedented threat posed by coronavirus. People here in the UK are worried about their access to healthcare, getting enough food and paying the bills. It's hard to imagine living in a cramped refugee camp, exhausted by years of war and traumatic experiences and barely able to spare the water to wash your hands. But the fact we know what it feels like to face this threat ourselves should make us all the more determined not to leave anyone behind.

Although there is still a lot of work to do to help developing countries finance and mount responses to the pandemic, the UK recently announced £200 million of funding and is backing the search for a vaccine. While it's vital the Government takes steps to protect the NHS and the economy in the UK, we can be proud that the British response to this crisis does not stop at our shores and that our efforts are working to save lives around the world.

Making the international community a force for peace

Another vital contribution would be to play our part in an international community that helps countries find peace, rather than prolonging violence. In recent years, a key factor behind both the number of conflicts and the ferocity of the violence has been the increasing and damaging 'internationalisation' of civil wars. Now is the time to change the script and make the international system a force for peace.

The UN Security Council has been accused of watching from the side-lines as this crisis unfolds. But the UN is only as good as the sum of its parts. The political will needed to end these wars, protect children, and save lives has ebbed away and the world needs it back, now more than ever.

As a permanent member of the Council, and as a member of NATO, the G7 and the G20, the UK can play a vital role in making this happen. It should start in Yemen, where the current G20 president, Saudi Arabia, has helped cause death and suffering on a vast scale. The UK has announced new funding to help families and called for a ceasefire. But sadly it isn't enough. The government needs to use all its diplomatic channels to increase the pressure for an end to the fighting.

Yet while critically important, a ceasefire in Yemen and elsewhere won't rebuild hospitals overnight. A fundamental change in approach is needed. And there has never been a more important time for the UK to use its power on the world stage to bring it about. We can never again look the other way while brutal fighting takes hold and destroys so many parts of our shared planet.