In 2021, the world’s most fragile states are on a knife-edge. People living in places made perilous by conflict, violence and climate disasters are now coping with the coronavirus pandemic as best they can; but, the odds are stacked against them.

Millions of people who we are trying to reach are displaced, living in camps or informal settlements far from their former homes, and already weakened by hunger, making them especially vulnerable to the virus. Many live in places where war, natural disasters and grinding poverty have shattered health facilities, eroded livelihoods, and left access to clean water, soap, sanitation or the space for physical distancing out of reach.

At the same time, the secondary effects of the pandemic have in many places been even more cruel, crippling economies, and making the world’s poorest people even poorer. This year the UN-coordinated Global Humanitarian Overview estimates 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance to survive. That is a 40 per cent increase in a year, and it’s almost entirely down to Covid-19.

People who have already suffered so much are now facing almost impossible challenges in the face of the virus. Many have little choice but to ignore stay-at-home orders designed to keep them safe. When faced with hunger, they have to go out to find work to feed their families, and masks may not be affordable. Sometimes measures to guard against Covid-19, such as regular handwashing, force people to go out, as many homes and shelters do not have running water.

In northwest Syria, where a decade of war has left more than 2.7 million people displaced, the virus is picking off victims in camps open to the elements in a bitter winter.

In northwest Syria, where a decade of war has left more than 2.7 million people displaced, the virus is picking off victims in camps open to the elements in a bitter winter. In Yemen, Covid-19 comes on top of conflict which has brought with it the threat of famine. The spectre of famine also looms in places such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

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Farid*, 6, stands in the doorway to his tent in a camp for displaced people in Idlib province, Syria, in December 2020. DEC funds are providing water and sanitation services at the camp through a local partner of CAFOD. Credit: Karam Almasri/DEC

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) in the UK and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) are two organisations set up to save lives and protect people facing humanitarian disasters. With our work, and that of the DEC’s 14 member charities, we are united in a common mission to prevent suffering for the world’s most vulnerable communities.

In compiling this report, the DEC carried out a survey of its 14 members, polling country directors and other senior staff working in the world’s most fragile states. These are voices of aid workers at the heart of the humanitarian response, directly facing the realities on the ground. The results are grave: 98 per cent agreed that the pandemic had worsened the humanitarian crisis in their respective countries, and 92 per cent expected it to get much worse in the coming months.

This report sets out the state of play in the six places – Afghanistan, DR Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen – that were the focus of the DEC’s Coronavirus Appeal, together with the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. It examines the impact of Covid-19 so far and what 2021 holds for vulnerable people in these places, as well as giving an overview of how appeal funds were spent in the first three months of the DEC-funded humanitarian response.

Thanks to the generosity of the UK public, the DEC has to date raised £36 million through its Coronavirus Appeal, launched in July 2020.With these funds, humanitarians have brought life-saving assistance and protection to vulnerable people. But humanitarian needs continue to grow just as international funding is being cut. We fear the worst is still to come, and in the coming months we will face difficult choices about how to prioritise our assistance so that we can reduce suffering as effectively as possible.

With the continued support of donors – large and small; corporate, government and individual – we can ease these difficult humanitarian choices. Together, we can save lives, protect health workers, and set up the infrastructure needed to face off this and future crises. Community members remain resilient and are fighting this pandemic as best they can. But they are doing so against the odds, and we must stand by them in their darkest hour of need.

Mark Lowcock,
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and

Saleh Saeed,
Chief Executive, DEC

February 2021

*Names changed to protect identities.