Emanuela Del Re is the Deputy Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Peter Maurer is the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross
there are no doubts that, in order to effectively fight the war against the coronavirus pandemic on the new front front lines in the more fragile countries, we need to extend solidarity beyond our borders: if we fail to act within a framework of global cooperation we risk recurring waves of Covid-19 across the world, with unpredictable consequences, which would then require the re-adoption of containment measures and trigger a permanent economic recession. This is why the concept of “solidarity” is often referred to in its primarily political meaning, in response to the current pandemic.
In Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America, the infection curve is rising, especially in the more deprived communities. As stated by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, we are now aware that the virus will be with us for a long time to come, and this requires us to act immediately and consistently. Looking at the situation from a global perspective and based on the WHO data, it emerges that a third of countries worldwide do not have a clinical referral system for the treatment of Covid-19 patients, and that only 48% of countries have an infection prevention and control programme, standard hygiene and water treatment procedures in health facilities. The humanitarian picture is already rather grim and, in many locations, this pandemic is exacerbating the living conditions of households which were already struggling to meet basic needs, from housing to food, water and medical care.
In countries where war has been raging for years, however, there is little or no possibility of implementing an adequate response against the virus. In recent months, fighting in many areas has even increased, such as in the Sahel or Libya where we are witnessing a worsening of the violence, an increase in the number of displaced persons and the further weakening of the local health systems, with a consequent increase in the risk of spreading Covid-19. More than 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict. Clearly, the spread of the pandemic in overcrowded camps for refugees and displaced persons, where promiscuity is rampant, would have disastrous effects. A very serious effect of fighting on the ground and of bombardments in inhabited areas is the destruction of urban infrastructure: in some places hospitals are attacked and have become inaccessible, in others they are barely functioning; the destruction or malfunctioning of water and sewage systems means that infectious diseases – cholera, measles, typhus or others – can spread again. The Red Cross and Red Crescent have stepped up their response to protect vulnerable communities through multiple actions: pre-positioning medicines and equipment, rehabilitating water and sanitation systems in camps and detention facilities, assisting local authorities in preparing emergency contingency plans to tackle an influx of casualties, to ensure that both patients and casualties are treated with dignity.
These measures can save lives in the short term. But what will make a difference in the long term is the prevention of future pandemic waves, which can be implemented by consolidating essential infrastructure in fragile countries. While the consolidation of essential infrastructure seems obvious in countries like Italy or Switzerland, it is not obvious in fragile contexts, where there are no health or economic protection networks. Moreover, it is estimated that lockdown measures could have a strong negative impact on those working in the informal economy, because the restriction of movement makes it impossible to earn a living. People cannot be forced to choose between work or health. If these populations, already severely weakened by conflicts, were to sink further into poverty, they would be even more exposed to disease. A further concern emerges: food security. This issue deserves a strong and immediate response, because it further endangers the health and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, especially in fragile contexts: signs of disruption in the food supply chains are already visible, as countries multiply measures to contain the pandemic. Even if Africa is suffering less from Covid-19, the continent is set to face economic disaster, not to mention a sharp decline in foreign direct investments, remittances, rising commodity prices and exchange rate volatility.
Italy upholds the mechanisms designed to support the fight against the expected food crisis. The international community, with the active and close collaboration of the Rome-based United Nations agencies (FAO, Ifad and Pam), is creating a real
«food coalition», a concrete and dynamic platform for exchanging good practices to mitigate the adverse socio-economic effect of Covid-19 on food supply and distribution. Without concerted and coordinated action many countries risk thwarting decades of progress and development. To avoid this scenario, it is essential that governments act in close collaboration with the private sector, humanitarian and civil society organisations, local communities and diasporas. All can play a key role in generating new livelihood opportunities and adapting socio-economic responses to the community context.
Governments are acting from a national perspective, but we need a global response that addresses the following key issues. 1) Developing a comprehensive response that can both address the emergency and strengthen the capacity of fragile countries to reduce the pressure on having to choose between health response and economic needs. 2) Ensuring – where possible – that funding in support of the Covid-19 response goes beyond the reallocation of existing aid funds. We have seen that neglecting support for health services other than COVID can lead to many more coronavirus deaths due to secondary impacts. 3) Adopting a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach that mobilises public and private capital, institutional players (States, International Organisations, International Financial Institutions). 4) Strengthening cooperation between States by allowing the production and free movement of medical goods and equipment, including personal protective equipment, so that they may go where they are most needed. Global food supply chains must be kept open. 5) Making sure that humanitarian assistance and protection is not put on hold in the face of the pandemic. Humanitarian access is a top priority, as repeatedly stated by the UN Security Council. When able to respect all health precautions, humanitarian workers must have safe access to populations in need. 6) Ensuring fairness and that no country is discriminated against. “The world must be united in the face of this challenge and we must ensure that the vaccine, when it arrives, is for everyone, not just the few,” said Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio in his call for an international alliance for the vaccine.
An appeal that points in the same direction – “Covid-19 vaccines in the public domain” – proposed in the call by renowned intellectuals spearheaded by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences Stefano Zamagni, supported and launched by “Avvenire”, “La Croix” and “Nederlands Dagblad”. We call on the States and public, private and humanitarian organisations to unite. It is our duty to help countries that are already fighting to provide health care to their communities, especially the most vulnerable ones. But it is also clearly in our own interest. None of us is safe until all of us are safe.