Reaching refugees, displaced people, and other vulnerable groups in humanitarian settings during the COVID-19 pandemic

It has now been over a year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a public health emergency and a global pandemic. In that time, the pandemic has impacted all of us in some way, and while much progress has been made in some parts of the world with vaccines and the re-opening of economies, some of the most vulnerable groups around the world are still suffering from the virus and its long-term consequences.

Refugees and other displaced people who have had to flee their homes because of conflict and disaster face especially severe challenges. For people living in conflict zones in countries like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, years of conflict and war have weakened health systems and shut down medical facilities even before the pandemic hit, threatening further loss of life. And in places where refugees have fled to, such as Greece and Bangladesh, they face a heightened risk of COVID-19 due to cramped and crowded conditions in densely populated camps and cities, making safety practices such as social distancing and proper hygiene difficult to maintain. 

Photo Credit: Abdullah Hammam / International Rescue Committee

At the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we’ve developed a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation and response plan in over 40 countries where the IRC works, including over 20 cities in the United States. Our COVID-19 response is based on three critical components:

  1. Preparing for, preventing, and responding to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities and meeting our clients’ other immediate health and economic needs
  2. Ensuring the safety of all frontline workers and emergency responders
  3. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 while ensuring other life-saving programming can continue, reducing the economic, health, education, and protection impacts of the outbreak

COVID-19 has been a powerful and sobering reminder of the world’s inequalities, especially for communities living in conflict areas. While virus testing has expanded in many countries, there remains a lack of testing in conflict-affected areas and we still don’t know the true extent of the outbreak or if the virus continues to spread undetected. COVID-19 will also have lasting societal impacts, leading to long-term issues from famine, loss of education and a severe lack of economic opportunities for those that need it most.

The impacts of COVID-19 are further exacerbated by existing challenges. Millions of children in humanitarian settings do not have the same tools and resources to adapt to remote learning as children in more advanced countries and the pandemic has further burdened health systems that were already devastated by crisis and conflict, meaning other diseases and illnesses are easier to spread, and access to healthcare is even more difficult.

Despite our best efforts and expertise in handling health related crises, the IRC and other humanitarian organizations can’t do it alone. A truly global pandemic requires a truly global response. Governments, donors, the United Nations, the private sector, other NGOs and global citizens all have a role to play in preventing further spread of the disease and investing in weakened health systems. And because the pandemic is causing so many long-term health and economic consequences, we must rebuild markets and job opportunities for those who were already struggling to rebuild their lives.

Now that the world has made progress in delivering vaccines, we also must ensure that there is equitable vaccine distribution, especially as virus variants and mutations continue to appear in conflict-affected countries. If these weakened health systems continue to see a rise in cases without proper vaccine distributions, we may see hospitals and health centers pushed beyond their breaking point. This is why it’s critical that everyone around the globe, including the most vulnerable, are vaccinated.

Despite the urgent need that still exists, we have plenty of reason for hope. Just recently, on April 7, the IRC celebrated World Health Day, an opportunity to recognize the incredible work of healthcare professionals and essential workers who are on the frontlines providing safe and healthy futures for the millions of people impacted by conflict and crisis around the world.  From IRC medical doctors to psychologists and clinical staff, our frontline colleagues have inspired us with their stories and dedication to their work.  Learn their stories here.

Photo Credit: Schneyder Mendoza/International Rescue Committee

While frontline workers and health teams are critical in carrying out the response to COVID-19, there’s still even more that needs to be done, and that’s where you and can help. Help us reach families in coronavirus-affected areas in more than 40 countries worldwide by voting for the IRC in this month’s CREDO grant.  COVID-19 will not be beaten anywhere until it is beaten everywhere, including among the most vulnerable.  You can also join the IRC in pledging your support for an inclusive global response, including equitable access to vaccinations.  

To learn more about the IRC and our response to COVID-19 and other humanitarian emergencies around the world, visit