COVID-19 makes addressing internal displacement even more urgent

People forced to flee their homes by conflict, violence or disaster are among those most at risk during this pandemic.

IDFs op-ed photo Reuters
A volunteer distributes face masks to internally displaced children amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, at an IDP camp in Idlib, Syria, May 19, 2020 [File: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

All over the world, families are grieving. They grieve the loss of friends and loved ones, the loss of jobs and livelihoods, the loss of freedom and human connection. No one is safe from COVID-19’s reach, and few are immune from its effects.

While this is a pandemic that defies borders, not all countries are affected equally. COVID-19 has brought even countries with strong medical systems to a tipping point. The virus’s effects will be magnified many times over if it takes hold in a country where hospitals are scarce or where infrastructure has been damaged by war. 

Individuals too are affected differently. Risk levels are closely aligned to personal circumstances and will vary depending on whether one has a job that allows them to work remotely, access to running water, or affordable and high-quality medical care.

People forced to flee their homes by conflict, violence or disaster are among those most at risk. New data released last month shows that by the end of 2019, more people than ever before – 45.7 million – were displaced within their countries as a result of conflict and violence. A further 24.9 million were newly displaced by disasters over the course of the year. 

Many of these people find themselves in crowded camps or urban settlements where COVID-19 prevention measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, are simply not feasible. Others may still be trapped by active fighting, making it difficult for them to access medical care. Indeed, we have witnessed hospitals continuing to be targeted in unlawful attacks even as the COVID-19 death toll climbs. 

Assistance for internally displaced people (IDP) relies first and foremost on their national governments. Unfortunately, the governments of some countries affected by internal displacement may be unable, and sometimes even unwilling, to provide basic health services to the internally displaced. As the pandemic is shown to be creeping towards displacement-affected countries and regions, the inability of individuals to access essential health services merits urgent attention.

To prevent the virus from taking tens of thousands of lives, countries that are home to IDPs must ensure that these communities are proactively incorporated into national COVID-19 planning, including by ensuring they receive accurate information, appropriate testing, and treatment. At the same time, the world must also come together in solidarity to fight this pandemic – not just as nations or regions, but as a truly international community. 

In Africa, a region that was home to more than 20 million IDPs at the end of 2019 and where a recent WHO model predicted that 10 million people could become severely infected, the call by 18 African and European leaders to support public health systems, fund the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, and invest in economic stimulus packages should be urgently heeded. Doing so will be crucial to preventing COVID-19’s further reach across the continent, including in displacement-affected areas.

Deterring the spread of COVID-19 in displacement contexts is critical but not enough. We need resolute action and solidarity not just in tackling this pandemic but in addressing internal displacement as a whole. 

At the end of last year, the United Nations secretary-general established a High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement tasked with finding ways to better prevent, respond and achieve solutions to internal displacement. As its co-chairs, we believe strongly that the work of the panel, which some have described a “once in a generation opportunity”, must be fully seized. Addressing internal displacement decisively is in our collective best interest. 

Once COVID-19 is defeated, another pandemic may recur. Even if many countries are better prepared and equipped for the next crisis, our interconnected world will never be truly secure against global health threats if millions of people remain trapped interminable displacement in crowded conditions without access to water or safe medical care. Their health is our health. Their safety is ours. 

In times of crisis, it is easy to hunker down and focus on protecting our own. This is understandable but we must do more. We must think not only about our own families and neighbours but about our global community. The High-Level Panel is redoubling its efforts to find solutions to internal displacement. We hope to continue working together with all stakeholders in the pursuit of this important objective.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.