Singer Annie Lennox and Olympian Mo Farah are backing an appeal by British charities to help protect millions of people at risk from coronavirus in the world’s most fragile states, and provide protective equipment for frontline medics.
Aid agencies warned on Tuesday that COVID-19 could cause a humanitarian catastrophe as it hits war-torn countries including Somalia and Yemen, which are already “one step away from famine”.
People in crowded refugee and displacement camps cannot socially distance and have limited access to handwashing facilities or medical supplies.
Malnutrition and chronic ill-health mean the death rate from the virus is also likely to be higher in camps than elsewhere, said Saleh Saeed, chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which launched the appeal.
Singer-songwriter Lennox, four times Olympic gold medalist Farah, who was born in Somalia, and actor and rapper Riz Ahmed will front appeals across television, radio and social media.
The DEC is an alliance of 14 British aid agencies including Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief.
More than 570,000 people have died from coronavirus worldwide, with the highest numbers in the United States, Brazil and Britain.
But Saeed said the official death tolls in fragile states were inaccurate.
“Look at Yemen – the official death toll is ridiculously 364, yet every day we’re seeing the graveyards full and the cemetery workers saying ‘we’re struggling to cope’,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 24 million people have been uprooted from their homes in the six countries at the centre of the appeal – Yemen, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.
The appeal will also focus on Rohingya refugees living in the world’s biggest refugee camp in Bangladesh where ActionAid warned the virus could “spread like wildfire” among its 850,000 inhabitants.
Money raised will help provide clean water and soap, and food to prevent malnutrition, particularly among children.
Saeed said people were having to choose between staying at home and starving with their children or going out to work or find food, putting themselves at risk of catching coronavirus.
“These are the stark choices people are having to make,” he added. “In the UK we can stay indoors, lock ourselves in, and everything is provided. That’s not a luxury these communities have.”
Proceeds from the appeal will also be used to provide medical staff and aid workers with equipment and supplies to protect themselves and help care for the sick.
Saeed said doctors in Yemen had had to shut hospitals and clinics because they lacked protective equipment and some medics had died after working without it.
In Somalia, Action Against Hunger country director Ahmed Khalif, said COVID-19 was adding to “a perfect storm” of crises which included conflict, drought, floods and a locust plague.
He told a media briefing the number of COVID-19 cases in the displacement camps was much higher than official figures suggested.
Aid workers said protecting the world’s most vulnerable was in everybody’s interest.
“The world must come together to help people who are most at risk. No one is safe until everyone is safe,” Khalif said.
Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper.