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COVID-19: Only if the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe

The collective efforts to tackle the virus that we are seeing across Ireland and the UK have been impressive. However, it’s critical that we act now to prevent it spreading unchecked among the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

As former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said recently, coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Only if and until the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

In the face of a pandemic, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak. Nobody is immune to this virus – not royalty, not prime ministers.

The situation for the most vulnerable

While the wealthy can be tested and treated quickly with the help of functioning healthcare systems, millions of others face uncertainty in the midst of a global threat.

The world’s poorest communities are particularly vulnerable, as they already face multiple threats to their health and livelihoods. Nearly three billion people across the developing world have no access to clean water, while millions more don’t have adequate healthcare and live in crowded slums or refugee camps where social isolation is impossible.

We are concerned that COVID-19 will overwhelm poorer countries with weak public health systems. In Mali, for example, there are just three ventilators for one million people, while in Zambia, there is only one doctor for 10,000 people. Even more worrying is the prospect of the virus hitting refugee camps or anywhere else where people are already struggling to access healthcare or food.

View of a hospital in an internally-displaced people camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: John Wessels/Oxfam

Women on the frontline

Women are on the frontline of infection risk – they make up 70 percent of health workers and carry out most unpaid care work, so it will most likely hit them the hardest.

Women also shoulder the vast burden of unpaid care which is bound to increase dramatically, whether caring for sick relatives or looking after children at home because schools are closed.

After working long days as a day care teacher in the Philippines, Rowena used to come home and do all the care work. Now, her husband helps cook, clean and mind their child. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

What we need to tackle this crisis

Governments in rich countries have mobilised billions of dollars in no time to fight COVID-19 and its effects. They should now support poorer countries in making the strongest-possible preparations to fight the coronavirus health emergency.

We are urging the leaders of the G20 to urgently provide the necessary resources to reduce the loss of life and support those most vulnerable.

We need to double health spending in poor countries to prevent some 40 million deaths. That’s the estimate of how many people could die worldwide from coronavirus, according to Imperial College London, unless there is an urgent and coordinated global response.

Oxfam calculates that doubling the public health spending would cost nearly $160 billion (€145/£130bn). This is less than 10 percent of the US fiscal stimulus to fight coronavirus. The required investment is minute compared to the social and economic costs of inaction.

Immediate debt cancellation and aid funding for the 85 poorest countries, home to nearly half the world’s population, would enable them to take action to prevent the spread of the disease and improve health systems to care for those affected.

Our response to the virus

We are working with local partners, governments and key UN agencies to support our programme teams across more than 65 countries on how best to respond operationally to COVID-19.

This includes preventive measures especially for people in higher-risk environments such as refugee camps or crowded urban areas.

In Cox’s Bazar, for instance, Rohingya refugees face the double threat of COVID-19 and the imminent monsoon rains which will turn the camps in Bangladesh into infected rivers of mud. We’re distributing soap and building showers, toilets and handwashing stations to prevent the spread of diseases including coronavirus. In addition, we’ve recruited more than 600 Rohingya volunteers to help us reach other refugees with hygiene information.

We’re doing all we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable communities. You can help us save lives.

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COVID-19: Your local Oxfam shop needs you

Last week, for the first time in over 60 years, our shops across the island of Ireland closed. We made this difficult decision to protect our staff and volunteers, and to do our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Our shops play an invaluable role in raising much-needed funds for our work worldwide – they help ensure we can continue to protect and support some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

However, they’re not just vital to our organisation, each one is community hub that has served and been supported by you for decades.

With our shops closed, we need your support now more than ever.

At this time of unprecedented change for all of us, our mission remains the same – to let you, our supporters, know how you can help communities facing extreme poverty and disaster. Life-saving work that is only possible because of you.

We believe that sharing the stories and experiences of the communities we work with is even more important now as we monitor and prepare for the potential rapid spread of COVID-19 in the countries in which we work. For people living in flimsy shelters in refugee camps and in communities without adequate hygiene and health infrastructure, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

We’re urgently appealing for your help and want to share some ways that you can continue to support your local Oxfam shop, even if its doors are closed.

We still want the things you don’t! As we all use this time to declutter, please continue to support your local Oxfam:

·       Save your donations and drop them in when we’re back up and running – for all of us, hopefully this will be sooner rather than later

You can also help us continue to raise vital funds:

·       Make a one-off donation or setup a monthly one if you can

·       Set up a Facebook fundraiser in solidarity with your local Oxfam shop – and help continue its crucial fundraising work!

Our shops play a central role in supporting our emergency appeals. Right now, we are trying to raise funds for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar – the largest refugee camp in the world. As we battle COVID-19, they are preparing to enter into monsoon season, which brings with it a serious threat to life and infrastructure in the camp. Our gravest concern is the destruction of sanitation facilities which are vital to halt the spread of deadly diseases such as COVID-19.

Our shops have been a part of local communities as far back as 1956. That is 64 years of providing people with affordable and sustainable clothing, books, furniture and more.

Thank you for all of the ways you’ve supported us over those 64 years from donating and shopping to volunteering your time and talent.

I hope you will stand with us now and understand why we are asking for your continued support through this global storm that we are all weathering together.

COVID-19: Why we need your support now more than ever

We just launched an appeal to support Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar survive monsoon season – the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in that region of Bangladesh.

As appeal letters dropped through the letterboxes of our loyal supporters, some 900,000 people living in the biggest refugee settlement in the world began to panic about how they could practice social distancing and life-saving hygiene practises in a makeshift home without adequate sanitation and health infrastructure.

This is the news we dreaded – and it’s why we made the decision to still launch our appeal at a time of unprecedented challenge at home and abroad as COVID-19 threatens us all. For people living in cramped, flimsy shelters in over-crowded camps, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s our job to let our supporters know how they can help the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, those facing poverty and disaster beyond our imagination.

We usually tell these stories and how you can be part of them face-to-face, through our fundraising activities and our network of shops in communities across the country. To protect us all, we can’t do that right now and we’re are urgently appealing for your help. 

We need your generous support now more than ever.

In addition to helping Rohingya refugees prepare for monsoon season, we’ll be helping them and communities all over the world to stay safe and healthy as COVID-19 threatens the poorest and most vulnerable.

Please donate what you can today:

Fashion Relief: Lorraine Keane shines a light on the Rohingya crisis

A few weeks ago, the amazing community in Galway descended to The Galmont Hotel for Fashion Relief 2020Some were there for the day out, others to bag a bargain. Yet whatever their reason for attending, everyone was doing their bit for vulnerable people experiencing climate change, conflict and hunger.

More than 700,000 people fled Myanmar when violence broke out in 2017, pushing the number of refugees in Bangladesh to almost 1 million. They arrived in the country suffering from both physical and psychological injuries, traumatised by the atrocities they had witnessed as they fled.

Views of the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Lorraine Keane travelled to Bangladesh to see how the funds raised are helping those who need it most. Among those she met was Rohingya refugee and mother-of-four Naila, whose husband was shot as they fled their home in Myanmar.

Naila, who was pregnant with her fifth child at the time, also witnessed her 14-year-old son being killed before the family escaped across the border. Like countless others, Naila and her children ended up in Cox’s Bazar – the world’s largest refugee camp.

Naila at her shelter in Cox's Bazar. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

Diseases spread quickly through the flimsy shelters in the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar, where the population density is four times the UN’s recommended levels. Respiratory infections, diarrhoea and malaria are rife, with children particularly vulnerable.

Lorraine Keane at Kutupalong Camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Jeannie O'Brien

Meanwhile, more than a third of women say they don't feel safe going to collect water or using toilets and showers. As a result, they go to the toilet less or end up going to the toilet inside their tents, putting themselves at risk of disease.

Worryingly, there are also reports of women and girls being forced into sex to earn money to survive, and adolescent girls marrying due to their parents’ inability to feed them.

What Oxfam is doing to help the Rohingya people

We’re providing vital aid including clean water and food to Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar. So far, we’ve helped 360,000 people in Bangladesh, while we’re also supporting 100,000 Rohingya in Myanmar with clean water and sanitation services.

In addition, we’re helping people stay healthy by installing water points, toilets and showers, and distributing soap and other essentials. We’ve recruited more than 600 Rohingya volunteers to help us reach other refugees with hygiene information, we’ve built the biggest-ever sewage plant in a refugee camp on site and our solar-powered water network provides safe water more effectively.

Meanwhile, we’ve provided 25,000 refugee households with vouchers that can be exchanged at local markets for fresh vegetables and ingredients. We’ve hired over 1,800 Bangladeshi locals to work on local construction projects including road repairs, schools and water sources and provided almost 400 local people with grants to start or expand their small businesses.

To help women feel safer after dark, we’ve installed more than 350 solar-powered streetlights around the camp and provided 20,000 torches and portable solar lanterns. We’ve also worked with women refugees to design more secure toilets and supplied them with fabric and vouchers so they can make or order clothes they feel more comfortable wearing in public.

Fashion Relief at Cox's Bazar | Oxfam Ireland