Supporting vulnerable populations during the pandemic and beyond

While the Covid-19 pandemic affected all people, it did not affect them all in the same way. For vulnerable populations such as refugees, those trapped in conflict zones, disaster victims or women in precarious conditions, access to basic health services, adequate shelter, and education infrastructure, which was difficult before the virus, became even harder. Local and international actors have put in place humanitarian aid emergency plans to avoid starvation and prevent the spread of Covid-19 in locations where health systems are ravaged and access to water is limited. This session explained why actions to save lives and protect dignity that take gender, cultural and geopolitical specificities into account are more necessary than ever.

Author: Sciences Po student Denise Morenghi summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: Preventing the worst: Supporting vulnerable populations during pandemics

Date: 11 November 2020

While the Covid-19 pandemic affected humanity on a global scale, it didn’t have the same impact on all societies or even on different individuals of the same community. The pandemic has disproportionately hit refugees and displaced populations, victims of war and violence, people whose lives are shattered by disasters. This is most evidently due to material and infrastructural deficiencies: for instance, as Founder and Chairwoman of Nadia’s Initiative and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad pointed out during the session, “how can Yazidis fight the spread of this virus, when ISIS has destroyed their infrastructure?”

Perhaps surprisingly, however, even in densely populated urban areas, the most severe impacts were linked more to the economic and social repercussions of the global health crisis rather than the spread of the virus itself. Indeed, the echo of the pandemic was far-reaching, broad, and multi-layered. Firstly, livelihoods have been disrupted, jobs have been lost, and food has become decreasingly available and affordable, bolstering risks of mass hunger. Moreover, GIZ Managing Director Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven stated that with the eruption of the pandemic, many local governments were unable to sustain basic public services and welfare programs, such as childcare and vaccination, with huge impacts on immunization and medical treatments and potentially disruptive social repercussions. On top of this, mental health issues have been accelerated by the pandemic, requiring support and responses that are still met with minimal capacities both at the local and international levels.

Furthermore, the fraction of the population employed in the informal economy remains high in developing countries. These workers are excluded from social safety nets or international aid frameworks, making it all the more difficult to guarantee the sustainability of their livelihoods. International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer preeminently pointed out that “any pandemic is a door-opener for serious protection issues”. Indeed, an increasing number of vulnerable people is now in need of protection and assistance, as stigmatization and power misuse were facilitated by the health crisis. Finally, inequality gaps have been widening, augmenting the distance between those with possibilities and those without. At the intra-community level, the impact on women has been particularly severe, especially for the many women employed in the informal economy. As they can no longer rely on safety nets, women who are left without income and have less access to economic assets see the gender gap further widening, while their role in countering the crisis would be undeniably crucial, especially in the social domain.

On the other hand, at the international level, Covid-19 has compounded inequalities through the imminent financial crisis in donor countries who, according to Nadia Murad, are “turning inwards, [allowing] the support from the safety net of the international community to easily dissipate”. Indeed, the international community’s support is the last remaining line of support for those made even more vulnerable by the pandemic. Yet, it risks undermining global solidarity in the name of growing nationalism. In parallel, the concerns raised by Nadia Murad were supported by all the speakers, in particular by Peter Maurer, who stated that “we are looking at an economic, financial and payment crisis of relief operations donors, and this opens up a gap between needs and the capacity to respond”.

While traditional humanitarian assistance has already made a considerable difference for marginalized people in Covid-19 times, this is far from sufficient, as the pandemic has uncovered a wide range of faults that will remain in the future and will be exacerbated by other threats, foremostly climate change. Global solidarity is an imperative that cannot be sidelined, especially in times of pandemics. Instead, it must be boosted, with its focus shifting to longer-term investments bound to increase the resilience of societies, as suggested by Ingrid-Gabriela Hoven: “When a dollar is spent, it needs long-lasting effects to build resilience, not just address immediate issues”. This should happen through the establishment of “joint targets for development and humanitarian programs”, as envisaged by David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Moreover, the inclusion of marginalized communities is key to building global solidarity with lasting effects: such a shift can only happen when local voices are empowered and heard and if the international community is willing to invest in them and gain their trust. Inclusive cooperation is the only way forward. As Nadia Murad stated, it is up to nations to decide “whether they will compete over national interest or hold each other accountable”.

By Denise Morenghi

Watch the full debate

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