COVID 19 preliminary scenarios for the humanitarian ecosystem: Opportunities to translate challenges into transformation

Originally published


Over 6 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported by the beginning of June and the virus is continuing to spread around the world.1Most countries that are experiencing an outbreak have seen their health systems stressed beyond capacity by the rapid increase in needs and have imposed unprecedented policies to slow community transmission, some extending as far as a “lockdown” dramatically limiting freedom of movement. In some hotspots, established and well-funded health systems have been unable to manage the spike in caseloads, resulting in the deployment of surge capacity. As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, it poses a significant challenge, particularly in areas with less well-developed health and social protection systems, in areas affected by active conflicts, and for displaced populations. In addition, women and girls, who make up the majority of healthcare workers and carers, are disproportionately affected because they are directly exposed to the virus and indirectly at high risk of gender-based violence.

The global response to this emergency is likely to take up a significant amount of aid resources (reducing the funds available for other priorities) and requires humanitarian actors to quickly adapt to social distancing and movement disruptions. Humanitarian actors must consider the wider implications of the pandemic at the same time as they respond to the urgent needs of affected populations, particularly the poorest and those that are most likely to be severely affected by COVID-19 (such as the elderly, people with pre-existing medical conditions and those without access to healthcare including refugees and migrants). The economic costs of containment are likely to be severe. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has suggested that the pandemic will affect four out of every five jobs and cause a global recession.3 Disruptions to agricultural processes and international trade will exacerbate global food insecurity in the short to medium term. Inequality will increase as those who are most privileged isolate themselves, secure better treatment and insulate themselves from the worst of the socio-economic consequences. The humanitarian needs associated with the pandemic and the policy responses to it are mounting and the funding for the response has been woefully inadequate.4 These threats require planning and early action.

Though there is variability across the world, for the coming 18-24 months we believe that the humanitarian community will predominantly be operating in an environment where there is a lack of global governance and where there is an intensifying ecosystemic crisis in the form of a global pandemic plus the economic and social disruption it causes.
This will result in an overwhelming level of humanitarian need and insufficient resources.

The implications for the formal humanitarian sector in this context are as follows:

● Humanitarian actors will have increasing difficulty accessing vulnerable communities as the humanitarian space is under significant restriction from national authorities.

● Limited experience in managing transnational/complex responses and in adopting equitable and effective remote partnering practices reduces the relevance of humanitarian actors capacity and expertise in localised crises in the face of a deepening ecosystemic crises which requires both local early action and collaborative longer-term strategies.

● Funding for humanitarian action is not keeping pace with the scale of need, leading to situations of high and prolonged distress.

● National and regional actors are superseding INGOs that are struggling to adapt quickly enough to maintain their relevance.

● Many states are not prioritising global development assistance and an increasing number of private donors are focusing on domestic issues. International funding is primarily funnelled through bilateral aid between governments.