Businesses in the UK are being urged to help fight the devastating impact of coronavirus in parts of the world already struggling against the twin threats of conflict and climate change.

Last summer, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – an umbrella organisation for 14 leading UK charities – launched a high-profile public coronavirus appeal to raise funds to provide vital assistance in countries including Yemen and Syria in the Middle East; South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa; and Afghanistan and the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Madara Hettiarachchi, the DEC’s director of humanitarian programmes and accountability, explains: “The conflict in these areas means that the health infrastructure has been decimated – they’re not able to cope in the same way that we have in the UK. So for those places, providing them with basic hospital supplies, PPE [personal protective equipment], disinfectant and even soap has been a key part of the appeal.”

She adds: “Since the appeal was launched in July 2020, we have raised over £38m, including public support and support from the government.”

The programmes that the DEC’s member organisations – which include Oxfam, the British Red Cross and Save The Children – have run since then have also delivered hygiene messages on handwashing and social distancing, and countered misinformation about the pandemic. “There are so many rumours and counter-rumours – we have seen those even here in the UK, and they are even more prevalent in places like South Sudan, where information is much more patchy,” says Hettiarachchi.

Another major issue, she adds, relates to the provision of water in refugee camps. “In camps in Bangladesh and South Sudan, for example, there were a limited number of water points and people were likely to crowd around them, helping the coronavirus to spread. That is something that has had to be addressed.”

How the DEC works

The DEC was set up in the 1960s as a way of coordinating charitable efforts in the UK at times of major global crises. Recent DEC appeals have covered the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and the impact of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in 2019.

Hettiarachchi says: “Individually, our member aid agencies do fantastic work, but what the DEC does is bring them together to launch a joint appeal to the UK public. DEC involvement means that the appeal is particularly serious and it effectively takes the issue up a notch.

“We have banking and broadcast partners, so the appeal has the advantage of using our network to get the message across that we need to stand in solidarity and provide assistance. It’s a joined-up approach, saying with one voice that we need to provide support right now.”

Covid-19 vaccines are not going to be a silver bullet in Somalia or South Sudan, where the camps and settlements have limited water or soap – it’s going to take a long time for the vaccine to get through

Madara Hettiarachchi
Director of humanitarian programmes and accountability, DEC

Although the coronavirus pandemic initially spread around the world in the early months of last year, the DEC waited until July to launch its appeal. “While we were extremely concerned about what was happening overseas in the first half of 2020, we were mindful of the crisis being experienced here at home, with the large death toll and people losing loved ones and incomes,” Hettiarachchi says. This was the first time that the DEC had launched an appeal for a disaster that simultaneously affected both the UK and internationally, she adds. “But the advantage of this was that people understood that the messages we were following at home were a luxury for those living in camps – that soap, for example, was a luxury for many of these refugees.”

Help for those who need it - now

While a number of recent DEC campaigns have related to extreme weather events, its coronavirus appeal is largely focused on people who are suffering the immediate impact of conflict – and who have been forced into displacement camps and settlements. But in many cases, the conflicts themselves have been the result of the changing climate.

A number of studies have examined the link between the likes of drought, crop failures and civil war in countries such as Syria and Sudan – and the coronavirus pandemic has only served to make these crises even more acute.

And while the vaccination programmes in the UK and other developed nations are providing grounds for optimism, this is not the case in many parts of Africa and Asia. “Covid-19 vaccines are not going to be a silver bullet for camps and settlements in Somalia or South Sudan, where there is limited running water or soap – it is going to take a long time for the vaccine to get through,” Hettiarachchi adds.

“Covid-19 has shown how interconnected we are and that we are only as strong as our weakest links. Yes, we need to look after our immediate priorities here in the UK, but then look beyond borders to ensure that people who need our support get it, and that they can receive the basics – water and sanitation, essential health assistance.”

Hettiarachchi says the DEC is happy to arrange briefings from its aid workers for businesses and their staff to help promote the appeal. “If they can hear directly from people on the ground what difference this money can make and how it is being used, that can be really impactful.”

Michael Duncan, head of giving strategy and programmes at the bank, agrees that businesses have an important part to play in supporting less fortunate communities. “Businesses and communities are interdependent, and this is never more true than when a disaster strikes,” he says. “Natural disasters and large-scale emergencies can have a devastating impact on our communities. We are proud of our longstanding relationship with the DEC, helping to raise money at times of humanitarian crisis in the world’s poorest countries. Most recently we have supported the DEC’s coronavirus appeal; a huge thank-you to our colleagues and customers who have raised over £410,763 for the DEC (so far), helping people living in war-torn countries and refugee camps receive essential items needed for protection against Covid-19.”


For more information, or to donate, visit Dec.org.uk.

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