With COVID-19, new challenges arise in keeping aid workers safe

Published: March 24, 2020 | By Tara Arthur and Laura Van de Vloet

In mid-February 2020, EISF launched the first, in what has since turned into a series of, informal virtual roundtables on the topic of COVID-19. The discussions have created a safe space for dialogue and information sharing amongst organisations big and small. While the first conversations were centred around the outbreak in China, hygiene and limited travel restrictions, members realised the high-risk implication of this new and unfamiliar virus hitting vulnerable places like Cox’s Bazar. The conversation quickly shifted to the need for contingency planning and operational continuity based on different global scenarios. Several weeks later, it has become clear that the impact of this virus has not only reached the global level, but has affected each of us, some in ways yet to be seen.

Right now, the security manager is responding, adapting and mitigating risks, while likely playing several other roles within the organisation and at home. These challenges are moving swiftly, from balancing operational continuity whilst concerned staff return home to care for family and loved ones, to countering the spread of disinformation and managing the abundance of changing guidelines and global travel restrictions that prevent both programming and the safe return of staff to their homes. All of this, coupled with the longer-term financial implications to the humanitarian/development sector, tells us we have reached a point where the impact of this pandemic demands a shift.

Reporting shows increasing amounts of ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment surrounding the news of COVID-19.  Announcements in countries like Ethiopia, where foreigners, including international aid workers, are being perceived as carriers of the virus. To assist international organisations, EISF is teaming up with Insecurity Insight to develop a specialised database for incident reporting. This will collate information on specific incidents – such as physical aggression, looting, online harassment, etc. – that are related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alongside this project, EISF will continue to foster a safe space for NGOs to share, learn and collaborate with one another, and will update our library and themes page with useful resources.

While, for some, COVID-19 started out primarily as a health crisis, we know that the expertise and direction of the security manager very quickly proved invaluable. This unique crisis has again demonstrated the essential need for different departments within an organisation to work closely together in order to form an effective response. Today’s reality may challenge what it means to transition from crisis to operations, and this seemingly blurred point in time presents the necessary opportunity for us to leverage our collective strengths. It seems evident that we are now operating in a COVID-19 world – and will be for the foreseeable future. We must continue to share openly and honestly so that we can act on lessons learned, in as close to real time as possible. This situation warrants collective efforts as far-reaching as the pandemic itself. We are all in this together, and we will all rise together while remaining ready for new and emerging challenges.

Resources we have collated so far can be accessed through the COVID-19 themes page. For members logged into the website, we have also begun collecting closed-door policy and guidance documents from other organisations.

We invite you to continue contributing to and following the resources we have gathered. Please contact eisf-comms@eisf.eu if you have open-access or member-only guidance you’d like to share.