As the spread of the coronavirus accelerates, the United Nations is working to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable are reflected in its response to the emergency.

Women, children, people with disabilities, the marginalized and the displaced, all pay the highest price in conflicts and are also most at risk of suffering devastating losses from COVID-19, said Secretary-General António Guterres in his recent appeal for a global ceasefire. He further reiterated that COVID-19 is a common enemy that does not care about ethnicity or nationality, faction or faith. “It attacks all, relentlessly.”

Micheal Burgos, the Director of Family with Children Shelters responsible for four shelters in Queens and Brooklyn, is among the people working to protect one of those vulnerable groups - the homeless.  In an interview with the UN Coronavirus Communications Team, he said that people in these shelters are exhibiting anxiety, stress, and fear about the COVID-19 virus as New York City has become a new epicentre of the pandemic.

“We have compositions of single parents with children and married parents with children,” he said, adding that some are undocumented.  Some have immediate concerns about food and where to live, others have concerns about the health of their family, he noted.

homeless man

His agency is trying to implement a family-centred approach and avoid the “cookie-cutter” approach, addressing all of the concerns and needs of everyone in the family unit. 

“Staff are being mindful that everyone at a homeless shelter has a history of trauma,” he said, explaining that the COVID-19 event only adds to their trauma.  He said that clear explanation of the virus is crucial to families in order to minimize their trauma histories. Also, instilling clear instructions on how to combat the virus is important, he advised. 

Despite all the therapeutic interventions his agency implementing, economic and financial realities are weighing heavily on them.  Many had to quit their jobs because their school-aged children now need to be home schooled.  The financial uncertainty is terrifying for families, only causing more significant trauma, he said.

Crowded living conditions make them highly vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission.  Mr. Burgos said those families with symptoms will be required to go to a quarantine shelter.  This would create anxiety for everyone else, so extreme confidentiality will be required to reduce fear and panic with other families, he said, adding that he is trying to bring hope to them by sharing words of encouragement. 

COVID-19 does not discriminate, nor should our response

Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, urged Governments to take urgent measures to prevent anyone falling into homelessness and ensure access to adequate housing for those without. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation,” she said.

Two population groups are at higher risks: those living in emergency shelters, homelessness and informal settlements, and those facing job loss and economic hardship which could result in mortgage and rental arrears and evictions, she said.

She noted that good practices are emerging in a few States, including: moratoriums on evictions due to rental and mortgage arrears; deferrals of mortgage payments for those affected by the virus; extension of winter moratoriums on forced evictions of informal settlements; and increased access to sanitation and emergency shelter spaces for homeless people.

Persons with Disabilities

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas, has warned that little has been done to provide people with disabilities with the guidance and support needed to protect them during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, even though many of them are part of the high-risk group. “People with disabilities feel they have been left behind,” the human rights expert said. “Containment measures, such as social distancing and self-isolation, may be impossible for those who rely on the support of others to eat, dress and bathe.”

“This support is basic for their survival, and States must take additional social protection measures to guarantee the continuity of support in a safe manner throughout the crisis,” she stressed, adding that access to additional financial aid is also vital to reduce the risk of people with disabilities and their families falling into greater vulnerability or poverty. “Many people with disabilities depend on services that have been suspended and may not have enough money to stockpile food and medicine or afford the extra cost of home deliveries,” she added.

Speaking during a Q&A the UN health agency hosted on its Twitter account on Thursday, Lindsay Lee, a World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Officer, who uses a wheelchair, explained that health care access is already difficult for some people with disabilities, even in high-income locations.   Other barriers include physical obstacles, discriminatory laws and existing stigma. “These things, if Governments and communities aren’t careful, can be exacerbated in crisis situations,” she said. “But if the whole community is willing to do its part, these sorts of risks can certainly be mitigated”.

While having a disability probably doesn’t by itself put someone at higher risk from coronavirus, many persons with disabilities have specific underlying conditions that make the disease more dangerous for them, according to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Programme on Disability/Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (SCRPD). Over 100 disability advocacy organizations and a coalition of disability rights and emergency management experts in the host country recently made an urgent call for immediate response, addressing the specific needs of persons with disabilities to maintain their health, safety, dignity, and independence in the community throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and related health emergencies.

Women

women scientists

During crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, women make essential contributions as frontline responders, but are hit harder by the health, economic and social impacts of the outbreak, says the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).  

“Globally, women make up 70 per cent of frontline workers in the health and social sector, like nurses, midwives, cleaners and laundry workers,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a recent message.  “We need mitigation strategies that specifically target both the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on women and that support and build women’s resilience.”

To ensure the establishment of gender-sensitive COVID-19 responses, UN Women issued a checklist for Governments, municipalities, parliaments and other decision makers.

Children

Hundreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers – because of actions taken to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, warned the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF is urging governments to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children amidst the intensifying socioeconomic fallout from the disease. The UN children’s agency, together with its partners at the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, has released a set of guidance to support authorities and organizations involved in the response.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, over 154 million children, about 95 per cent of the enrolled, are temporarily out of school due to the COVID-19, UNICEF reported today based on data collected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

This situation increases the risk of permanent drop out, especially for the most vulnerable children. “This is an unprecedented educational crisis in the recent history of Latin America and the Caribbean”, said Bernt Aasen, Regional Director a.i. UNICEF for Latin America and the Caribbean. This week, UNICEF and its partners will launch the regional outreach campaign #LearningAtHome through their digital channels to provide families and educators in the region with free educational and entertainment tools, as well as tips and examples of good health and hygiene practices.

Older Persons

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that the virus can infect people of all ages, with the risk of severe disease gradually increasing with age starting from around 40 years, especially for those with underlying conditions.  Older people, especially those over 60, are at highest risk. 

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) says that in a time of social distancing, older persons are more likely to be isolated. The ITU Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D) Digital Inclusion Programme promotes information and communication technology accessibility as a means to empower all people – regardless of their gender, age, ability, or location. It supports ITU members in their efforts to create more inclusive digital societies in their respective countries and regions, as well as to ensure the socio-economic development and full and effective participation in society and the digital economy of all their citizens.

Migrants and Refugees

The United Nations Network on Migration has issued a statement emphasizing that “COVID-19 does not discriminate, nor should our response.” The Network urged that all – including migrants regardless of migratory status – are included in efforts to mitigate and roll back this illness’s impact.  

To that end, migrants must be seen as both potential victims and as an integral part of any effective public health response. It is particularly important that all authorities make every effort to confront xenophobia, including where migrants and others are subject to discrimination or violence linked to the origin and spreading of the pandemic.