Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in complex humanitarian crises

Professor of Politics and Public Policy & Director of the Global Policy Center David Leblang

Over 168 million people across 50 countries are estimated to need humanitarian assistance in 2020. Response to epidemics in complex humanitarian crises— such as the recent cholera epidemic in Yemen and the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo— is a global health challenge of increasing scale [2]. The thousands of Yemeni and Congolese who have died in these years-long epidemics demonstrate the difficulty of combatting even well-known pathogens in humanitarian settings. The novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) may represent a still greater threat to those in complex humanitarian crises, which lack the infrastructure, support, and health systems to mount a comprehensive response.

Poor governance, public distrust, and political violence may further undermine interventions in these settings. Populations affected by humanitarian crises are expected to be particularly susceptible to COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, due to displacement, crowded housing, malnutrition, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) tools, and stigmatization. Disease outbreaks further reduce access to limited healthcare, which is increasingly disrupted by attacks on health facilities and the persistent overburdening of health systems. These situations escalate both the necessity and the difficulty of delivering accurate and actionable information to potentially affected populations.