Expert Chat: Finding Global Humanity in the Response to Covid-19

For the second expert chat in the Batten School’s series on the novel coronavirus, Professor Kirsten Gelsdorf discussed how the humanitarian community is rising to the challenges the virus presents.

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Given current health recommendations based on the rise of COVID-19, people around the world are being careful to wash their hands, practice social distancing, and use personal protective equipment when it’s available. But for millions of people living in conflict and disaster contexts, taking measures like these can be next to impossible, and Professor Kirsten Gelsdorf emphasized how important it is to understand their situation.

“Most of the media attention you’re seeing is probably focused on the US and Europe,” said the former United Nations humanitarian official, addressing online audiences through Facebook Live. “But what we need to quickly realize and respond to is that every country, every city, and every neighborhood is probably going to be impacted. And while we hear these phrases like ‘the virus doesn’t discriminate,’ the virus is still going to disproportionately affect certain populations.”

Through the expert chat series, Batten professors like Gelsdorf share their clear-eyed, research-based, and insightful perspectives to inform and empower viewers everywhere. Gelsdorf aimed to highlight the massive challenges that COVID-19 brings to humanitarian contexts, but also illustrate some notes of hope.

“What I’m about to present might feel overwhelming,” she said. “But I also want to offer some of the bright spots of unity and humanity that we’re already seeing unfold in this crisis as well.”

The U.N. has identified 168 million people living in conflict or natural disaster zones, Gelsdorf noted. Many of these people live in overcrowded urban locations or refugee camps like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where there are approximately one million Rohingya refugees living in incredibly congested conditions. Across the globe, an enormous number of people—an estimated 40% of the world’s total population—also lack access to handwashing facilities.

To compound these issues, many crisis contexts already suffer from severely degraded health systems. The difference in resources can be staggering, Gelsdorf stressed. In the entire country of Venezuela, one informal estimate is that only 84 intensive-care beds exist. “If you think about the fact that New York City is calling for 100,000 beds,” Gelsdorf said, “that can tell you the gravity with which the global humanitarian system is thinking about how to respond.”

In vulnerable communities, COVID-19 will not only spread far more easily, it will also likely set off a secondary wave of issues, Gelsdorf added. With border closures and market fluctuations, essential supply chains for food, water, medication, and protective equipment can be disrupted. Due to cancellation in supportive programming and other problems, women could also experience an increase in sexual and physical abuse and a decrease in access to reproductive health services. Additionally, the rise of the virus has already caused many international aid workers to be grounded or quarantined in their home countries, making it more difficult to provide communities with the help they need.

While all this might feel like “an avalanche of bad news,” Gelsdorf said, “what we’re also seeing is that this crisis offers a chance for the world to show a new spirit of innovation in global humanity.”

Borrowing a phrase from UVA professor of psychology Bethany Teachman, Gelsdorf highlighted the humanitarian aid community’s ability to “turn a threat into a challenge.” She noted that humanitarian practitioners are already developing creative solutions: Two examples are a plan to train former teachers in Cox’s Bazar (where schools are closed) to become public health workers and a crisis hotline in Myanmar for girls who might be victims of abuse to call.

“In the humanitarian sector, we have a lot of incredible lessons learned: infrastructures that have been used to address cholera and Ebola and are now being applied in this situation,” Gelsdorf said. “Luckily, the health sector in global humanitarian response is one of the strongest. We have a lot of evidence, a lot of innovation, a lot of experience”—although that sector “does need massive financial support and government support to work properly,” she added.

Gelsdorf also pointed to the unification of “warring factions,” in various countries, a trend she said we’ve seen in response to natural disasters in the past. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are offering aid to Iran; Yemen is moving toward a temporary ceasefire in its current civil war; and despite tense relations, government officials from Columbia and Venezuela are coming together via teleconferences to discuss how the two countries might jointly respond to the crisis.

Answering a question from the audience about where she found her optimism personally, Gelsdorf cited all the people attending the talk itself—and shared that “not a day goes by” without a student sending her an article about the humanitarian response to COVID-19. “People are engaged about these issues,” she said.

In her final remarks, Gelsdorf championed a global approach to the crisis. “As individual societies, we need to find ways we can come together as a global community, because it’s not just COVID-19, it’s also things like climate and cybersecurity,” she said. “I hope we can make the hard reforms that will bring us together to look out for vulnerable populations as we move ahead.”