Response and Responsibility

Ray Collins on the secondary crises arising from the Covid-19 Pandemic

While the priority must be to tackle the health emergency caused by Covid-19, our short-term response needs to be both global and anticipate the longer-term consequences around the world. Investing in building stronger and more resilient communities will help better understand the knock-on effects of the abrupt changes brought by lockdowns and social distancing.

Billions of people in the global south experience immense suffering in their lives, but Covid-related restrictions have exacerbated this.

Women are facing increased violence at home; and children are lacking the safe haven of school and falling into the hands of abusers. Supply chains for food and other essentials are being cut off as restrictions on trade continue to apply, and there are further crackdowns on human rights; and extremists are exploiting the suffering to fuel hate and conflict. And there is also the likelihood that other infectious diseases will re-emerge as routine vaccinations are missed.

These, of course, are but a sample of the challenges being seen by aid workers on the ground. Many more disasters will emerge that we cannot foresee and prepare for.

There have been some positive moves to the growing debt burden faced by many countries already ravaged by conflict and poverty – but these are only temporary measures. Each and every challenge must be addressed through multilateral institutions, and the UK should live up to its proud reputation as global aid leader to identify such challenges and offer solutions.

One concern yet to be fully understood is how Covid-19 will impact on those living in refugee camps. Globally, there are nearly 26 million refugees – the majority of whom live in low and middle-income countries, where health systems are weak. If the virus should reach these camps, and there is some evidence to suggest it has, cramped conditions combined with poor hygiene will lead to an exponential spread in infections. That could lead to unparalleled suffering.

Aid workers are warning that the secondary consequences could be equally disastrous. The International Rescue Committee suggests the closure of women, girl and child friendly spaces could lead to an increase in intimate-partner violence in camps where up to one in three women have previously suffered such attacks. A psychologist working with refugees in camps inNorthern Iraq has warned that the pandemic could worsen mental health conditions, where upwards of 50% already live with PTSD. And Human Rights Watch have warned that the authorities in Greece may be using the pandemic to clampdown on the freedoms of the displaced.

This Wednesday in the House of Lords, I will attempt to pin down the government on how it plans to work through international institutions to support those in refugee camps during the current health crisis – and, indeed, the likely other crises that will follow.

Incredible efforts are being made to mitigate the virus from camps, particularly by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Not only has it begun constructing isolation and treatment facilities, but information-sharing has been expanded through a network of more than 2,000 community volunteers, religious leaders, and humanitarian workers. Attention has already been turned towards the longer-term challenges, and the agency is now giving financial support to those refugees who will struggle with the economic pain of Covid.

Vulnerable individuals and communities will suffer most during this pandemic, and there are few more vulnerable than those living in refugee camps.  The UNHCR and other global institutions are recognising the emerging challenges and adapting their work accordingly. The UK has a responsibility to support these efforts and to take a lead where necessary. I hope Ministers will confirm they share that ambition in the House on Wednesday.

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury is Shadow Minister for the UN and a member of both Labour’s DfID and Foreign Office team. He tweets @Lord_Collins. For more blogs by Labour Peers, visit labourlords.org.uk 

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