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Palliative care: why it is crucial in any COVID-19 response

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Aninia Nadig, Sphere’s Policy and Practice Manager, shares her thoughts about the importance of providing palliative care in responses to COVID-19.

Despite some progress, palliative care still does not receive enough attention in humanitarian response. We need to remind ourselves of its importance, particularly in the framework of the fight against COVID-19.

Palliative care, the prevention and relief of suffering and distress associated with end-of-life illness, is no less important than other humanitarian actions. Not only does it form part of psychosocial care and contribute to emotional healing when there is grief and loss; it is also part of a holistic approach to life and death that encompasses prevention, mitigation, treatment and end-of life care.

During the COVID-19 pandemic (…) many people have died in isolation, a situation which runs counter to the ethical belief that people have the right to a dignified death

Public health is about finding the right balance between the health of a population as a whole and individual wellbeing. This balance has been difficult to strike during the COVID-19 pandemic because many people have died in isolation, a situation which runs counter to the ethical belief that people have the right to a dignified death. Palliative care, as described in Sphere’s “new” health standard 2.7, is firmly anchored in its approach to dignified humanitarian responses.

It is hard to overstate the significance of palliative care in such situations, and in humanitarian settings more broadly, as integral part of public health. As such it should be included in all response plans, whether at the global, country or organisational level.

The COVID-19 response clearly poses new challenges for the humanitarian sector, but we must not try to start from scratch

Response plans must reflect existing standards to promote global coherence and opportunities for coordination and learning. The COVID-19 response clearly poses new challenges for the humanitarian sector, but we must not try to start from scratch. A new crisis doesn’t necessarily require new standards, but rather the understanding and application of existing ones. We should build on the common knowledge and accepted good practices developed over the past 20 years.