The Pivot to COVID-19
RedR Australia’s early learning and the challenges to come
Kirsten Sayers/RedR Australia
The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our era. It has challenged how we think and behave around issues of public health. It has reset economic and poverty fault lines and upended the way humans move within and across borders. Most important, it has cut across race, class and gender divides, affecting all humanity.
RedR Australia — an international humanitarian response agency that provides skilled people and training to help communities plan, prepare, rebuild and recover before, during and after crises and conflict — is proud to provide humanitarian support to our partner organizations globally. Our niche product is our people. Our people offer dignity, compassion and generosity of spirit to those most vulnerable. They embody the spirit of service for the common good. We consider ourselves privileged to be invited to work alongside local communities.
As with most of the world’s industries, as COVID-19 emerged, our ability to deliver additional humanitarian assistance to communities facing crisis was immediately curbed. Despite having people with in-demand skills — such as disaster risk management and recovery, health and protection — we were largely immobilized as global transportation routes shut down.
The inability to move our people and assets was exacerbated by the world’s insurance providers’ inability to guarantee medical evacuations or emergency extrications. As our world ground to a halt, we realized we needed to change our approach; otherwise, we would be watching from the sidelines as vulnerability deepened.
RedR Australia has responded to pandemics, including Ebola, avian flu and SARS, sending technical experts to assist during times of crisis. We are committed to working in partnership to help combat the global spread of COVID-19. What follows is an outline of how RedR Australia has adapted operations and overcome challenges along the way, focusing on dual disasters in the South Pacific and the Syrian and Rohingya refugee crises.
INNOVATION AND AGILITY
Rapidly evolving travel bans, airspace closures and restrictions on insurance markets all called for innovative operational problem-solving from an early stage of the pandemic. RedR Australia engaged a specialist broker to pave the way for procuring additional insurance to safeguard operations and worked with the Australian government to identify prospective pathways through the country’s travel ban.
The significant reduction in global flights was one of RedR Australia’s biggest logistical hurdles. Through registration with the World Food Programme’s Common Services project, a network of scheduled flights for humanitarian workers offered the promise of access. In all cases, clear tasking of individuals and internal working groups, coupled with regular progress reports to the wider organization, assured agility throughout a time of significant disruption.
THE PACIFIC: PREPAREDNESS AND LOCALIZATION
While Pacific island countries were largely spared from the high COVID-19 infection and fatality rates found in other countries, they had to manage the health crisis within existing and new humanitarian crises.
In early April 2020, the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Harold cut a path of destruction across the Pacific, affecting 30% of Vanuatu’s population. At the time, Vanuatu had no reported cases of COVID-19 and had strict border controls. While those controls may have protected the nation from COVID-19, they reduced available paths to provide humanitarian assistance. For RedR Australia and many others in the sector, this emphasized the need for strong operational preparedness to support locally led solutions. The Vanuatu government led the response to Harold, supported by newly implemented preparedness and response plans and cyclone-resilient infrastructure developed following Cyclone Pam in 2015.
Through the Australia Assists Program, funded by the Australian government, we worked side by side with at least seven Pacific governments, their communities, and local and regional organizations to bolster national disaster preparedness and response capabilities. This work supported the creation of national disaster management plans and procedures, strengthening many South Pacific states’ ability to tackle multiple and complex emergencies.
RedR Australia had 20 employees deployed in the Pacific before COVID-19. We had 17 still in place and 18 working remotely during the pandemic. We decided early to support our people to stay and work alongside our Pacific partners where possible. This included finding and engaging talented and experienced Pacific island nationals to work with us to increase available expertise in country.
Here are some examples of local and pragmatic solutions:
- Active recruitment of local experts resulted in rapid access and impact. Their understanding of the context and network in which they operate matters during a disaster. One such RedR Australia employee in Vanuatu facilitated the movement of humanitarian supplies by ensuring they meet international and national import regulations and were distributed appropriately.
- The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projected a 20% annual increase in gender-based violence as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, including lockdowns. For some Pacific countries, these projections may have been conservative. Women and girls were also disadvantaged as health systems divert resources from sexual and reproductive health care (SRH) to respond to emergencies. The closure of health clinics and delays or cancellations of community-based services put women and infants at increased risk. In partnership with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and UNFPA, RedR Australia’s monitoring and evaluation (M&E) specialist helped monitor preparedness and response activities in terms of infection prevention and control. This included preparing country-specific M&E tools and supporting members to provide lifesaving SRH services should health systems become overwhelmed due to COVID-19.
THE ROHINGYA CRISIS: COORDINATION AND ACCESS
An estimated 1 million ethnic Rohingyas who have fled Burma live in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, with as many as 60,000 to 90,000 people per square kilometer. Social distancing during the pandemic was impossible. Overcrowding, limited sanitation and an overburdened health system made preparing for an outbreak of COVID-19 challenging. The first Rohingya refugee tested positive for COVID-19 on May 14, 2020, and the first death was reported May 30, 2020. Although the camp braced for a health crisis that would exacerbate the protracted humanitarian crisis, the overall number of reported cases among the refugees remained relatively low through October 2020. Lower testing rates may be one explanation, however.
RedR Australia has deployed 52 humanitarian specialists to support the refugee crisis since 2017. Coordination and multisector and multipartner collaboration remain key to success. RedR Australia personnel quickly pivoted to focus on COVID-19 preparedness and response in Cox’s Bazar.
Compared to the Pacific context, where civilian control remains in place supporting the humanitarian corridor, increasing military oversight on cargo movement in Burma is significantly affecting essential humanitarian access and supply chains. This may have increased COVID-19 risks and loss of life. Civilian and political leadership — and the relationship between security and law and justice protection services — remain key to enabling or disabling humanitarian relief.
RedR Australia focused on what impact it could make despite the challenges, including:
Our hydraulic engineer working with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Bangladesh shifted his work on monsoonal flood modeling in Cox’s Bazar to repurposing camp facilities for COVID-19 isolation and quarantine.
Our UNFPA-Burma Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse coordinator helped mainstream preventive messaging in quarantine centers, including virtually.
Our humanitarian affairs access advisor with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)-Burma helped establish operations, assess needs and move humanitarian supplies, personnel and services to affected populations.
Our World Food Programme (WFP)-Burma Protection and Accountability to Affected Populations advisor provided gender and protection advice and training that accounts for changing needs caused by COVID-19.
THE SYRIAN CRISIS: ACCESS AND PROTECTION
The COVID-19 crisis marks the ninth year of the Syrian conflict. Over 13.2 million people need humanitarian assistance, including 6.2 million internally displaced people and 5 million people with acute needs. Ensuring the political will and ability to coordinate humanitarian action has long been a challenge of the Syrian crisis, and COVID-19 further affected the situation, making it almost impossible for humanitarian actors to operate. Without political will, strong local leadership and concerted multilateral coordination, the humanitarian crisis will deepen, further undermining both regional stability and economic and social recovery.
The number of people infected by COVID-19 (including Syrian refugees and those internally displaced) in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey likely exceeded the official count, with contact tracing and testing both limited. A COVID-19 outbreak could have been catastrophic not only for the Syrian refugee populations but also for already severely weakened health systems and services. As is so often the case, the risks to women, girls and the elderly were particularly acute.
Understanding this, RedR Australia prioritized people who have the right skills and experience to find immediate solutions to the challenges posed by COVID-19, including:
Our OCHA-Whole of Syria civil-military coordination officer acts as the link between the U.N. and all stakeholders required to facilitate the protection of vital humanitarian facilities and movements. This helps to maintain the integrity of humanitarian supply chains into northeast Syria, and supported implementation of the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan. This includes assurance of a medical evacuation corridor for humanitarian personnel from northeast Syria to Erbil, Iraq, when required.
Our WFP-Jordan gender advisor supports training programs, developing sustainable networks and embedding increased gender awareness into programs to prevent sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment, especially critical at a time of rising gender-based violence.
Our U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees-Turkey shelter officer updated site planning to ensure infrastructure supports the needs of internally displaced people potentially affected by COVID-19, including the elderly and those with disabilities. The officer also led and supported various site planning and urban design training activities focused on local actors.
LEARNING AND LOOKING AHEAD
The unique challenges and opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to reveal themselves. This global crisis forced RedR Australia to quickly and decisively charge two parallel paths: to ensure the well-being of our personnel around the world while simultaneously upholding our commitment to our partners and, by extension, the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
In many ways, this crisis validated our efforts in recent years to pre-position disaster preparedness support to communities. It also accelerated our resolve to drive humanitarian reform by seeking local solutions to local problems during disasters. We are buoyed by our successes and humbled by the work we still have to do. In both cases, we are learning.
WHO WE ARE
RedR Australia is a humanitarian organization that provides training and skilled people to work with communities to plan, prepare, rebuild and recover before, during and after disasters and conflict. RedR Australia maintains a roster of more than 750 technical specialists across 76 skill profiles, including disaster risk management, humanitarian response, protection and stabilization. RedR Australia was established in 1992 by engineer Jeff Dobel, who called on his peers to apply their skills to disaster relief. Dobel’s vision — to deploy engineers to support disaster-affected communities during international crises — was realized with support from four founding bodies: Engineers Australia, Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia, Consult Australia and Professionals Australia. RedR Australia relies on public donations and support from its founding bodies, corporate partners and government donors.
RedR Australia engaged a monitoring and evaluation team to improve our real-time learning for what has become an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. This is what we have learned so far.
- Doing nothing is not an option. We made a strategic decision early — as long as there was no compromise to the safety of our deployed people, we would do all we could to keep them in place if they chose to remain. We repatriated only those who chose to return home, were at higher risk or whose host agency demobilized.
- Investing in our partnerships and responding with a unity of effort and spirit matters. These partnerships are bound by trust formed between our people and the communities and leaders they work alongside. Standing together to face this global humanitarian challenge was our promise. No country was immune.
- The first rule of first aid is to ensure your own safety. For us, we were responding to the international crisis at a time when our own communities were struggling with anxiety, fear and uncertainty. We activated a team that ensured our Melbourne headquarters and regional Fiji and Jordan offices and staff were safe, secure and resourced appropriately to work remotely and in new ways.
- In times of crisis, compassionate and accurate communication drives a common purpose and marshals resources toward organizational goals. Thankfully, a global footprint and a tenancy issue meant our staff had recently experienced working remotely. We established structured communication check-ins with staff and deployed personnel via phone, email and video. We acknowledged that our staff’s diversity meant there would be diversity in their needs. By the end of March 2020, all our staff and many of our deployed personnel were working from home and still engaging with our donors and operationalizing our response.
- Our commitment to increased localization has progressed. We focused on strengthening operational and organizational systems capabilities in the Pacific, exploring ways to provide regional and localized emergency preparedness and training and deepening our RedR International partnerships — including a joint program and deployments with RedR Indonesia and RedR India.
- It is crucial that communities can lead their own disaster management responses and have their call for help answered. Vanuatu’s recovery from Cyclone Pam enabled the country to build stronger preparedness and response systems and architecture that proved essential for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Tropical