World Humanitarian Day: How COVID-19 has made humanitarians’ job harder

Reading the latest reports of aid workers killed, kidnapped and attacked or reading the personal, human stories of loss can be crushing.

COVID-19 has added to the threats faced by humanitarians but also the needs of so many from whom the pandemic, and its economic fallout, has taken everything. On this World Humanitarian Day we pause to remember the colleagues and community members who are our inspiration as they risk their lives in the service of others.

It has become depressingly familiar to hear of colleagues that have been targeted by violence and sometimes killed while doing their jobs.

The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) of Humanitarian Outcomes recorded 277 incidents against aid workers last year, the highest number in 10 years.

Recently we have been deeply saddened to read of the attack which killed 8 people including ACTED colleagues in Niger, and Oxfam is still mourning the loss of two of our colleagues in Syria earlier this year.

Adel Al-Halabi (left) and Wissam Hazim, Oxfam humanitarian staff killed on the job. Photos: Oxfam
Adel Al-Halabi (left) and Wissam Hazim, Oxfam humanitarian staff killed on the job. Photos: Oxfam (with permission of their families)

In addition to the threat of violence has come the risk of infection from COVID-19.

Humanitarians in the health sector are knowingly putting themselves at greater risk of disease, in order to help others, but additionally, according to Geneva-based Insecurity Insight, more than 265 violent incidents related to the coronavirus have been reported, with some attacks on health workers driven by fears they could spread the virus.

This is not unique; during the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), aid workers trying to slow the spread of Ebola became targets of attacks from fearful communities.

We have also seen health workers and human rights activists become the target of attacks by governments for protesting and challenging official infection figures or Government’s responses to the pandemic.

At a time when transparency, communication and sharing data is an essential means of overcoming communicable disease, we have seen the politicization of information and the rise of “fake news” which creates confusion and means that many citizens are not sure who can be trusted.

The act of caring is not free, but costly. That is what makes carers special — because we recognise in them the willingness to give of themselves with no consideration of receiving. The highest example of this is the work undertaken by local humanitarians; the great majority of humanitarian assistance and caring is provided by local people in local communities, and by women in particular.

Floral wreath honoring those killed in conflict.

So on this day we honour Oxfam colleagues, the staff of local & national organizations and the countless unsung community members on the frontline of humanitarian action and the Covid-19 response, their commitment and bravery in the face of tremendous challenges.

Every day, in countless situations, people undertake extraordinary tasks to help their fellow humans. Whether it be those who rushed towards the collapsed and dangerously precarious buildings on August 5th in Beirut to help dig others out of the rubble; the women calling for peace and freedom in protests from Sudan to Belarus, those who wash and feed, unnoticed, the sick in their community; the doctors and nurses who risk infection daily to treat patients; the human rights activists who stand up in public, aware of the retaliation that may come, to push for change where change is needed; it is these acts of costly caring that inspire and galvanize the rest of us to action.

On this World Humanitarian Day let us take a moment to pause and acknowledge the pain and loss of so many in the service of others. And then whilst we work for things to be different, let us go forward with humility and determination inspired by the price our colleagues have paid.

This entry posted on World Humanitarian Day, 19 August 2020, by Nigel Timmins, Humanitarian Director, Oxfam International

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Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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Oxfam International

Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.

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