The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has to praise and acknowledge with appreciation the invaluable dedication and sacrifice of the volunteers, medical and health staff of the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) who are in the first line of response to COVID-19.
Barbara Rizzoli, the head of the ICRC delegation in Iran, made the remarks in an exclusive interview with Iran Daily, saying the committed and courageous staff and volunteers of the IRCS and other national societies across the globe, are risking their safety to bring help and reassurance to their communities.
On Tuesday, IRCS President Karim Hemmati said four of the the society’s personnel and volunteers had lost their lives in the battle against coronavirus, adding 51 more had been infected with the virus, according to rcs.ir.
“It’s important that their lead role in this response is recognized and that they are given our full support to carry out their life-saving work," said Rizzoli.
She added under the present tough circumstances where Iran is grappling with the coronavirus spread, the ICRC is concerned over the negative impact that any other constrains, including ongoing sanctions, could pose on the effectiveness of the country’s COVID-19 response.
Rizzoli warned that this could have humanitarian repercussions within the country and go beyond its borders.
Causing a respiratory disease known as COVID-19, the new coronavirus first erupted in the Chinese city of Wuhan late 2019 before growing into a global pandemic. The outbreak of the virus in Iran began in late February.
In May 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 and reimposed Washington’s sanctions on Tehran. The unilateral sanctions slammed by Iran as “economic terrorism” have hindered delivery of humanitarian aid, medicines and medical equipment to Iran at a time when it is fighting coronavirus.
Full text of the interview follows:
IRAN DAILY: What joint measures have been taken by the ICRC and the IRCS to fight coronavirus and reaching out to those infected in Iran?
BARBARA RIZZOLI: In terms of response to the outbreak in Iran and the region, the lead remains with the national authorities and international health organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Within the Movement, the primary responders for increased preventive measures remain the National Societies, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), with the additional financial and technical support from the ICRC (as well as other partner National Societies).
The IRCS is on the frontline of the response to COVID-19 in Iran through the provision of services in several areas such as risk communication and public education, screening, treatment of patients, disinfection of prisons, and setting up of post-discharge shelters as well as livelihood support to affected vulnerable people.
"We have to praise and appreciate the invaluable dedication and sacrifice of the IRCS volunteers as well as the medical and health staff who are in the first line of response to COVID-19. The committed and courageous staff and volunteers of the IRCS, and other national societies across the globe, are risking their own safety to bring help and reassurance to their communities. It’s important that their lead role in this response is recognized and that they are given our full support to carry out their life-saving work."
The ICRC has donated 500,000 CHF ($514,942) to the IRCS to support them in the provision of food and hygiene items to groups of people with special diseases such as kidney diseases, haemophilia, and cancer who are considered as high-risk population toward COVID-19.
The ICRC is also supporting the IRCS in integrating the COVID-19 preventive awareness raising activities in the mine education in Western Iran. By supporting a local NGO in Mashad, northeast of Iran, and timely provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) items, the ICRC ensures the continuity of provision of essential health services as well as restoring family links services to the vulnerable target population.
The recent spread of COVID-19 has put a serious strain on the health care systems of those countries that have been so far affected the most. The Islamic Republic of Iran is amongst such countries as it is currently grappling with an outbreak of coronavirus. Given such difficult circumstances, the ICRC expresses its concerns over the negative impact that any other constrains, including ongoing sanctions, could pose on the effectiveness of the response to the COVID-19 by the relevant Iranian authorities. This could have humanitarian repercussions within the country and well beyond its borders.
What have been the ICRC’s measures in the region, particularly in areas of armed conflict, to fight the virus and help the infected?
For war-torn countries, the stakes couldn’t be higher. COVID-19 is one more deadly threat to the lives and the wellbeing of millions of people in the region’s conflict zones. Many are already struggling to survive and cope with fighting, lack of food, water and power, health care and jobs. Existing needs are staggering – almost 40 million need aid in Syria, Iraq and Yemen alone. The virus spread would be a particularly devastating new crisis for already vulnerable groups. We know from previous outbreaks that early action helps avert the worst. As prevention is better than cure, we are working with Red Cross Red Crescent partners, including tens of thousands of National Societies’ volunteers to act now and prevent the virus from gaining foothold in the region’s conflict zones, among the most vulnerable. It should be emphasized that COVID-19 is not solely a health crisis but will have huge economic impacts, globally and regionally.
We are specifically focusing on prevention, especially in support of the most vulnerable and in places such as displacement camps and prisons around the world. People who have been displaced by conflicts are often particularly vulnerable to health complications. Detention facilities that are overcrowded and have poor hygiene or lack ventilation pose an extra challenge when it comes to preventing and containing infectious diseases, including COVID-19. With this in mind, we have donated tens of thousands of units of protective clothing and materials, and disinfectant to health facilities and prisons in Iraq and Syria, as well as hygiene kits for detainees and displaced people in camps and shelters.
In Yemen, we keep donating hospital material and medicines to our supported health facilities. There is an active conflict in Yemen, seasonal diseases and now COVID-19, which adds another layer to an already challenged health system. The ICRC has been supporting, with the Yemeni Red Crescent Society several quarantine places and one isolation center. Some of our activities in water and sanitation and oxygen stations will also benefit the authorities COVID response. The ICRC donation in Gaza has included a ventilator, patient monitors, defibrillators, suction devices, and pumps, which are key tools for treating patients suffering from serious cases of COVID-19.
ICRC President Peter Maurer said, “Work is underway to scale up operational response in areas including detention and displacement camps.” Which countries, particularly in the region, are home to such camps? What measures are being taken to scale up operational response in these areas?
Displaced populations and recent returnees often live in precarious conditions and lack access to basic services such as water and sanitation, making them more exposed to communicable diseases. As part of its humanitarian response, the ICRC, therefore, works on enhancing access to clean water for household and livelihood use. In Iraq for instance, the ICRC has rehabilitated three water supply systems serving nearly 19,000 people this year. Our teams in Iraq are also in the process of upgrading two additional water supply systems serving 20,000 people. This will ensure an improved sanitary environment and help increase the resilience of this population in the face the current COVID-19 outbreak.
A main concern for the ICRC is the impact of a possible spread of COVID-19 in a country like Syria with a weakened health system, from over nine years of ongoing conflict. Half of all health facilities in Syria are out of service or partially functioning. Large-scale displacement has led to a degradation in access to health care and essential services across the country. There are an estimated 100,000 people living in camps across the northeast of Syria, as well as tens of thousands of detainees in already crowded and unhealthy conditions. People who have been displaced by conflicts are particularly vulnerable to health complications. Their temporary accommodation or internally displaced person (IDP) camps can be crowded, often with inadequate sanitation and shelter or little access to medical care and good nutrition.
In the northeast of Syria for example, the provision of water from Allouk station – serving more than 800,000 people in Hassakeh city and its surroundings, has been more frequently disrupted in recent times. As a preventive measure, and in case of future water shortages, the ICRC together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) has installed 45 water tanks in different places across Hassakeh city. If people don’t have access to clean water to start with, it will be difficult for them to keep a proper hygiene to fight the risk of the virus.
What is also important is to make sure that the other needs of this already vulnerable population are not completely forgotten. COVID-19 is definitely a risk but so is the lack of access to clean water and food as well as weapon contamination. Our role is to make sure that all these services continue during these challenging times, while taking all the necessary precautions.
How are the ICRC’s routine operations being conducted in Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria?
In Syria, more than 700 SARC volunteers and Syrian health workers were provided with PPE. More than 200 consultations are conducted in Al-Hol field hospital on a weekly basis. Over 250,000 people continue to be supported with food on a monthly basis. Over six million people all over Syria have benefited since March 2020 from reparation works and water distribution. Around 750,000 people will benefit from a hygiene kit distribution in the coming three months. Hygiene items as well as disinfection materials are being distributed to central prisons.
In Afghanistan, the ICRC is part of a COVID-19 task force which includes several international organizations and government bodies. There, the ICRC is working to support health services in detention, in the regional hospital in the south of the country and to raise awareness of preventive measures with first-aiders and taxi drivers when dealing with casualties and war wounded transfers.
Our priority in Yemen is to keep assisting people affected by conflict while taking all the preventive measures possible and to fill the gaps identified by the authorities according to our capacity. We are aware that in a country with only 50 percent of health facilities functioning, prevention is the best cure. Thus, the most common activities in Yemen by the ICRC are social distancing during community activities, promoting and providing training on proper hygiene to our target populations – including in detention centers, distribution of cleaning and hygiene items to supported hospitals, primary health care centers, detention facilities as well as the population in displacement or in quarantine places and dissemination of prevention information through social media, call center and audio spots.
Our key partner is the Yemen Red Crescent Society with whom we are in daily contact at various levels and throughout the country. We are also in close contact with other Red Cross Red Crescent Movement partners, particularly the IFRC as well as UN agencies. The ICRC is bringing health materials to the country needed for hospitals and health facilities as well as detention centers and it hopes to be able to bring PPE soon.
The ICRC has announced that since the COVID-19 outbreak, it has developed an emergency plan to ensure continuity in the most critical hospitals it supports around the globe. Would you please elaborate on this plan and the hospitals supported by the committee?
The ICRC has set up a task force at its headquarters in Geneva to coordinate contingency planning through its network of delegations worldwide, which guides our global operational response. We work with health facilities, supporting hospitals, primary health care clinics, dialysis centers and physical rehabilitation centers amongst others. Where possible, this must continue.
ICRC’s operations have been affected by this pandemic. Restrictions on travel, supply chains interruptions (availability of products and shipping) and closed borders are challenging for our work. However, our top priority is to continue protecting and assisting people affected by armed conflict and violence. We will focus on our areas of expertise (support to health systems and detainee visits). We will adapt to this new situation as best we can, and review activities and plans as the situation evolves.
As a part of our global contingency plan, we are working to provide one month’s worth of additional medical supplies to priority delegations to ensure continuity in the most critical hospitals we support around the world. Our logistics teams are working in shifts to ensure speedy deliveries. Local sourcing is being scaled up as part of contingency planning by delegations, with additional quality controls put in place.
It should be stated that our support to hospitals in conflict zones includes donating supplies and equipment, financial support and staff training. We support infrastructure works to expand hospital capacity, ensure a stable water supply and proper waste management, and improve overall medical service delivery. We’ll provide advice, guidance and standards to authorities to prevent and control the outbreak.
On hospitals, let me mention the case of Afghanistan, a flagship of ICRC’s physical rehabilitation work. Under the current circumstances, new patients are given an appointment and only urgent cases are accepted. Services are guaranteed to patients already under treatment (in particular those whose suspension could be harmful). Repairs of prostheses and orthoses and wheelchairs are also guaranteed. The number of people accommodated in the in-patient wards has been reduced to make social distancing possible. The home visit program for spinal cord injuries who cannot come to the physical rehabilitation centers continues with visits being restricted to the most urgent and serious patients in need. The Physical Rehabilitation Program (PRP) has reduced its activities in order to limit the gathering of many people as a preventive measure. Besides stricter hygiene measures, hygiene training in all ICRC physical rehabilitation centers and screening of patients and visitors have been introduced.