In 2020, IMPACT Initiatives, along with academic partners at the University of Manchester Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, and the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Humanitarian Health, developed a study with the main objective of informing strategic and operational decision-makers in the humanitarian sector as to how COVID-19 has impacted the severity and magnitude of humanitarian needs. The study aims to identify:
the levels of vulnerability among crisis-affected populations prior to COVID-19;
the adoption of COVID-19 preventive measures by crisis-affected populations and the association of factors which were likely to increase or decrease adoption of such measures; and
the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic response measures on access to services by crisis affected populations and on the severity of humanitarian needs.
The study primarily relies on an exploratory and statistical analysis of data from Multi-Sector Needs Assessments (MSNAs) conducted in 2019 and 2020 by REACH Initiative in partnership with Humanitarian Country Teams in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as on background data on each country’s COVID-19 outbreak, policy measures, and related impacts on humanitarian services. It serves as a starting point for humanitarian practitioners, epidemiologists, and public policy-makers to adapt their strategic and operational responses to address the unintended negative socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 policy measures on vulnerable households in an informed and context-specific manner.
Pre-COVID-19 vulnerability and resilience relating to healthcare
These effects have compounded existing vulnerabilities prior to the pandemic. Analysis of MSNA 2019 data, collected prior to the onset of COVID-19, indicate that households residing at longer distances from essential and basic services, those already living under the hardships of poverty and limited development, and households with persons living with disabilities or chronic illnesses, already faced severe risks of exclusion from delivery of essential services.
Multi-sector impacts of COVID-19 containment measures
Overall, the study finds clear evidence that policy response measures enacted by governments against COVID-19, especially those related to “containment and closure”, have exacerbated preexisting vulnerabilities and the severity of needs of both displaced and non-displaced communities in crisis-affected populations. For instance, such measures have led to increased food insecurity, unemployment and gender-based violence, decreased livelihood opportunities, unstable commodity pricing, and decreased access to healthcare facilities, education, as well as protection and other social services.
Adoption of preventive measures
The report also conclusively illustrates that, despite the rapid spread of the pandemic and associated policy responses by governments and humanitarian actors, the adoption of COVID-19 preventive measures by crisis-affected populations has been variable between different population subgroups and across crises, highly context-specific and related to a range of interdependent demographic and socioeconomic factors, displacement status, distance from healthcare facilities, and information on humanitarian aid.
Comparisons of the country-specific responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have shown that a lack of coordination and a decreased humanitarian footprint have resulted in an increase in the severity of needs of crisis-affected households. Consequently, there is a need for coordination between public authorities and humanitarian actors to better counteract the secondary negative effects of policies designed to curb the spread of the pandemic. As a starting point, international aid actors, public authorities, as well as humanitarian researchers, could share information and expertise in order to ensure that hot-spot areas with populations in severe or extreme need, are prioritised in the humanitarian response and efforts made to counteract the direct and indirect impacts of containment and closure policy measures. Further, aid actors and public institutions could also re-prioritise funds and programmes to meet the increased demand for services.
Findings from the research also show that public authorities need to ensure that despite measures limiting human mobility, vulnerable communities can still maintain adequate levels of access to essential and basic services, such as healthcare facilities, marketplaces, and gainful employment opportunities. Increasing availability of services closer to where communities reside, or increasing transportation services in a manner which still allows for the practice of social distancing would be a key step in mitigating the negative impacts of closure and containment policies, without a further deterioration in the levels of need or an increase in inequalities of access. In particular, governments should ensure that opportunities for the sustenance of livelihoods are increased in a manner which is coherent with the adoption of personal preventive measures, such as reducing mobility and distancing; that access to essential foods is maintained through increased transportation services or aid distribution; and that services for education, and for survivors of protection issues or gender-based violence continue to function.
Aid actors and public institutions should also tailor information and awareness raising campaigns by focusing on the characteristics of households and the specificities of the contexts in which they reside in order to increase the likelihood of adoption of other preventive measures. They should also consider how the delivery of humanitarian aid can be further adapted to maintain social distancing measures, in particular at sites of aid distribution.
The disparity in results across countries and population sub-groups shows that while there is no single solution applicable across diverse contexts, there are meaningful avenues for public policy and humanitarian practitioners to explore based on statistically representative household-level data. Academic and humanitarian researchers thus have a pivotal role to play in further studying the interdependent associations between the context of crises, interactive household characteristics and outcomes related to humanitarian needs, in order to inform policy-makers and practitioners with a solid evidence-base to consider which factors are most likely to lead to successful interventions.
Ultimately, humanitarian and public policy responses should be based on reliable data, feedback from affected populations and from field teams working to implement programmes, in order to both limit the spread of COVID-19 while concurrently meeting the existing humanitarian needs of vulnerable communities.