As more countries become affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to keep in mind vulnerable groups and those already affected by other humanitarian emergencies such as conflicts, natural disasters and climate change that place them in acutely hazardous situations.
To ensure that the response to counter COVID-19 is inclusive and people-centered, the Sphere Handbook and Core Humanitarian Standards initiatives have issued guidance on the minimum response all crisis-affected people have the right to expect. The guides highlight the processes and minimum requirements that need to be established for affected populations to survive and recover with dignity.
As Sphere and Q&A Hub’s regional focal point in Asia, Community World Service Asia (CWSA) has launched a program delivering a series of national and regional webinars introducing these tools to humanitarian organizations and aid practitioners providing relief to vulnerable communities in the COVID-19 crisis.
A second session of the regional webinar on Q&A Response in COVID-19 took place today with participation from aid workers from eleven countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia, United States of America, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, United Kingdom, Nepal and Australia.
Uma Narayanan facilitated the session and highlighted fundamental principles from Sphere and Core Humanitarian Standards (CHS) that focused on peoples’ right to live with dignity, right to protection and the right to receive assistance during the crisis. These principals are crucial to a successful, holistic intervention and to ensure accountability to affected populations. In reference to the current crisis, the right to death with dignity was emphasized upon as infected individuals are dying every day without seeing their family members due to quarantine and visiting restrictions. Participants were reminded that people who are infected or those who even die from the virus should be treated with dignity.
Today’s hour-long session discussed relevant standards and guidance on emergency response from the Sphere handbook’s WASH and Health chapters. Participants were familiarized with CHS on Quality and Accountability as an essential tool that defines the humanitarian sector’s core commitments to affected people. The CHS guidelines encourage humanitarian actors to apply a principled and people-centered approach while responding to and managing COVID-19 programs.
The global scale of the crisis in terms of public health and its social and economic impacts is universally recognized. The crisis not only imposes limitations on travel and movement but has highlighted how these restrictions could potentially impact the quality and accessibility of health care and support that people are entitled to. Discussions in the webinar reiterated the need for a response that is free of any discrimination, ensuring that all affected are treated with dignity and respect, given equal and appropriate health assistance where needed.
Guidance notes and tools from the Sphere Handbook’s Health chapter were shared with participants of today’s webinar to ensure that their organizations’ health service delivery, healthcare workforce and provision of essential health products are efficient and in line with international standards. Information from the chapter providing guidance on ways to prevent communicable diseases and strengthen organizational surveillance and reporting system for early outbreak detections and the early response was also shared.
The subject of staff mental health and psychological well-being while responding to COVID-19 was highlighted by participants in the webinar. Employees earning low salaries and facing challenges that result in economic distress were raised as major concerns by managers and organizations. Women and children were also identified as those segments of communities that were gravely affected by the crisis in terms of domestic violence, abuse and increased unpaid labor. To counter the many adverse impacts, some governments such as in Malaysia have launched various counseling channels for citizens to address such issues and challenges for people under lockdown. NGOs working primarily on gender-based violence were also cited as examples that are engaged in these interventions to provide maximum support to people in need.
A need to increase the quality and frequency of awareness-raising on COVID-19 among more marginalized communities was highlighted today. Uma stressed upon the holistic approach incorporated in the standards which aim at addressing the on-going needs of the wider population through key messages while advocating and coordinating during such crisis. Participants shared several challenges faced by communities in this crisis. For example, one participant shared that some farmers in the Philippines and India are witnessing the destruction of their harvests before their eyes while people residing in close-by areas are starving due to lack of food. A participant from Zambia also shared similar challenges. In the case of Zambia, a practical example was shared of how standards such as CHS were used for lobbying with the government to continue the agricultural sector while still adhering to the restrictions imposed by the government. A position paper was produced in this regard which was accepted by the local authorities. Such good practices of using standards will be compiled by CWSA and shared with the webinar attendees.
During the webinar, participants also underscored the importance of risk-mitigation and striking a balance between the do no harm approach and addressing valuable community feedback.
Community World Service Asia is planning to conduct future webinars where agencies and organizations will be given a platform to share best practices and experiences on addressing challenges that are faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We can only grow in our good practices if we share the best practices as widely as possible. The Sphere and CHS standards exist for us to use it in various responses and for me, advocacy and lobbying are key factors through which we can contribute and play a prominent role in responding to COVID-19, directly and indirectly,
 Asian Disaster Risk Reduction Network (ADRRN)’s Quality & Accountability Hub