How USAID is Adapting Humanitarian Programs to Respond to the Global COVID-19 Threat


With more than 2.4 million cases and counting, the global coronavirus pandemic has had devastating affects for people around the world. Photo credit: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

The United States is responding to COVID-19 pandemic here at home and also supporting partner countries in their response to the disease. USAID and the State Department have pledged more than $900 million to date to combat COVID-19 in more than 120 countries around the world. This assistance will be used to care for the affected, help frontline health workers slow the spread of the disease, and equip local communities with the tools needed to fight this dangerous pathogen.

The United States is helping more than 100 countries fight this pandemic. Map credit: USAID

In addition, USAID is adapting its existing lifesaving programs to help meet the growing global COVID-19 threat. For many countries, the disease is spreading in areas already hit hard by crises, such as conflict, drought, locust swarms, and flooding. USAID’s humanitarian programs are flexible and nimble, allowing us to meet critical needs while pivoting to address new challenges caused by COVID-19. Here’s a snapshot of how we and our partners are doing that in several countries around the world.

Strengthening Health Services

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh is home to some of the largest refugee camps in the world. The area is also at high risk during the cyclone and monsoon seasons, which is why USAID pre-positioned plastic sheeting here in case it is needed to provide people with emergency shelter. Now, our partner the International Organization for Migration is using some of this sheeting to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by upgrading health facilities and constructing isolation units and treatment centers. These efforts are helping Rohingya refugees and host communities prepare for and respond to the virus.

Isolation units and treatment centers are critical to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the International Organization for Migration is repurposing USAID-provided plastic sheeting — typically used for emergency shelter — to help construct them. Photo credit: IOM

Equipping People with Handwashing Supplies

Handwashing is key to staving off disease, but doing it properly requires soap and water. Something seemingly simple during normal times can be difficult during a crisis, like in Colombia, where an influx of Venezuelans have arrived with next to nothing. Handwashing can also be a challenge in South Sudan which has been ravaged by years of war, or in The Bahamas which is still recovering from Hurricane Dorian — the strongest storm ever to hit the island.

Our partners are ramping up handwashing activities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 within these communities. This includes installing and promoting handwashing stations, providing soap, hiring tap monitors at water points, regularly sterilizing water taps, and promoting good hygiene.

Handwashing is a priority activity in areas experiencing disasters. USAID humanitarian partners in Colombia, South Sudan, and The Bahamas are ramping up handwashing activities to help keep crisis-affected communities COVID-19-free. Photos credit: ACDI/VOCA (top), IOM South Sudan (bottom left), and Samaritan’s Purse (bottom center and right)

Providing Life-Saving Information

In Thailand, we’re using the latest technology to help stop the spread of COVID-19. We’re partnering with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Thai Red Cross to respond to the pandemic through a mobile application called “Phonphai.” This real-time disaster management tool, typically used to respond to floods and other disasters, enables users to report locations of people at risk of contracting COVID-19, as well as those who are infected or quarantined and need assistance. With the app, more than 56,000 relief kits were delivered to people identified by health volunteers.

Top image: “PhonPhai” is a disaster management app that was originally created in Thailand for natural disasters like floods. Now, it’s being used to help fight COVID-19. Bottom images: Health volunteers use the app to order relief kits for people who may have COVID-19. Images and photos credit: Thai Red Cross

In other parts of the world, USAID partners are also raising awareness about COVID-19 by using music, TV, radio, and hitting the streets with life-saving messages to help identify disease symptoms and share tips to keep people healthy.

In Ethiopia, USAID partner Action Against Hunger raises awareness about COVID-19 and spreads key messages about how communities can keep themselves safe.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we’ve been working with Internews to train local journalists how to report on ongoing Ebola outbreak. Now, we’re also including critical information about COVID-19. Internews is also taping into the power of music to reach people, especially youth, with life-saving messages. Working with local artists, they released an inspirational song “Toko Longa Corona” (We are going to beat the coronavirus).

Practicing Social Distancing

In war-torn South Sudan — where millions are displaced and nearly two-thirds of all people need humanitarian aid — USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team is on the ground working with 30 humanitarian partners to pivot existing health, food, and water, sanitation and hygiene programs to address the COVID-19 threat. A big part of these efforts is using social distancing and other precautions to help keep everyone safe while still being able to deliver life-saving assistance.

In Ethiopia and South Sudan, USAID partner Catholic Relief Services uses social distancing to safely distribute food to people in need. Photos credit: Catholic Relief Services

Bolstering Disaster Management Capabilities

With U.S. support, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies just opened state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) in North Macedonia and Serbia. Red Cross disaster experts are working out of the new EOCs to monitor the outbreak in real time, providing vital information to local emergency authorities and the public. USAID is also supporting the Red Cross in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro to provide training and equipment for EOCs that will soon be up and running to support COVID-19 efforts — and any future disaster responses.

North Macedonian Red Cross disaster experts work out of the newly-opened Emergency Operations Center in Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo credit: IFRC

Before this pandemic hit, the United States was the leading provider of humanitarian aid, assisting dozens of countries hit hard by disasters. Now, we’re more committed than ever to continuing our life-saving work, alongside people, families, and communities around the world, to help them through this global crisis.

Learn more about USAID’s COVID-19 response.

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