Humanitarian principles key in response to COVID-19

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By Perseverance Javangwe

In a world filled with misinformation, insecurity and the dangers of stigmatisation there is need to understand and apply the most important and basic principles and actions to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

There are tools from the humanitarian sector that can directly support COVID-19 response. Tendai Makaruse a Social Worker with Plan International explains the importance of these Humanitarian principles in the fight against COVID-19. In his presentation during a Social Workers COVID-19 platform, Makaruse explained the importance of enhancing people’s safety, dignity and rights.

“Humanitarian principles which have been found to be increasingly useful to this day are as old as the social principles and values. One such is the principle of humanity which emphasizes the respect and value of each human being despite their circumstances.

“Sphere offers a holistic, people-centred approach to humanitarian work, with the three foundation chapters– Humanitarian Charter, Protection Principles and Core Humanitarian Standard – supporting the four technical chapters. For the Coronavirus response, there are three important overarching factors: Firstly, people should be seen as human beings, not just cases. Human dignity is woven throughout the Handbook. Secondly, community engagement is crucial. And thirdly, focusing on preventing the spread of the Coronavirus should not make us forget affected people’s other needs, nor the long-term medical needs of the wider population.

“A Coronavirus response will only be effective if all targeted people can be screened, tested and – if found ill– treated. This is why you will need to identify people who may be hesitant to come forward for treatment. Those who are living with conditions associated with stigma or indeed those who fear they may be stigmatised for having the Coronavirus can be driven to hide the illness to avoid discrimination. This may prevent people from seeking health care immediately and discourage them from adopting healthy behaviors. It is important therefore to provide supportive messaging and care. In this regard, Protection Principles 1 and 2 are directly relevant, as they elaborate on the three rights spelled out in the Humanitarian Charter: the rights to dignity, protection and assistance: Protection Principle 1: Enhance people’s safety, dignity and rights and avoid exposing them to further harm, discusses protection risks, the importance of context analysis, the treatment of sensitive information and supporting community protection mechanisms (where they are not counter to the public health objectives). Protection Principle 2: Access to impartial assistance according to need and without discrimination. This Principle expresses the right to receive humanitarian assistance, one of the Sphere’s three rights expressed in the Humanitarian Charter,” explained Makaruse.

This comes amid revelations that some members who tested positive for the coronavirus in the country have been neglected by the government, and shunned by their communities. According to Makaruse there is need to engage and view these people as human beings and not just cases because they need everyone’s support. There is need to value this family and provide them with good health and well-being (SDG #3).

As has been alluded to during the pandemic, provision of safe water, sanitation and hygienic conditions is vital in the COVID-19 outbreak. There is need to continuously wash hands and conduct waste management practices in communities, homes, prisons and health care facilities to prevent human-to-human transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Makaruse explained the importance of hygiene in the prevention of COVID-19 while strongly advising on regular hand washing. He also stated that community perceptions are imperative in the fight against COVID-19 because social norms may be against some of the measures to curb the virus.

“Sphere also embrace community engagement principles which are relevant to covid response and are in sync with social work ethos which encourages involving people in tackling their problems. Poor hygiene is an important factor in the spread of infectious diseases. The Coronavirus is spread by droplets; therefore, hand hygiene is a central element in preventing its spread. Hygiene promotion with a focus on hand washing is therefore critical but can only work if the community is fully engaged. This involves building trust and mutual understanding by engaging communities in communications and decision making. Hygiene promotion must include a strong focus on regular hand washing and any other safety measures specific to this particular response, for example keeping your distance from other people.

“Existing community perceptions and beliefs can support or hinder a response, so it is important to understand and address them. Some social norms may need to be modified to prevent disease transmission. For example, you may need to work with the community to find alternative forms of greeting to replace handshakes, or the way meat and animals are handled in marketplaces. Also identify and encourage specific COVID-19 disease prevention and treatment measures which will work within the affected community.

“If community outreach workers actively go out to find cases or carry out related tasks, they must be trained to do this. Similarly, effective community engagement can identify and address rumors and misinformation. These spread particularly quickly in cities. In urban centers, it is therefore particularly important to identify and engage community and interest groups, for example schools, clubs, women’s groups or taxi drivers. Public spaces, media and technology can help. Use technology to promptly provide accurate information on healthcare and services. Secondary and tertiary healthcare providers are often more active in cities, so increase these providers’ capacity to deliver primary healthcare. Engage them in early warning and response systems for communicable diseases and increase their capacity to deliver their usual services,” explained Makaruse.

The pandemic poses an unprecedented challenge for governments, heads of state and international institutions. The rapid spread of the pandemic highlights the interconnectedness of today’s globalised world, and the need for a fully-functioning multilateral system that can oversee a comprehensive public health response based on the principles of justice and equity.

The G7 statement of 16 March 2020 marks a welcome first step, with leaders pledging to do “whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts”. This approach should be followed by all governments and business leaders.

COVID-19 shines a light on our common humanity and shared vulnerabilities, and it is only through a collective, collaborative response that all our fundamental interests can be served.

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