SEATTLE, Washington — During times of crisis, one of the many challenges relief organizations face is how to best deliver critical resources such as food, water and medical supplies to the people who need it the most. Often there are a variety of ways to accomplish this objective, but there are times when a very specific approach is required to meet the urgent needs and circumstances. Air relief is a highly effective and highly adaptive tool in the fight against extreme poverty and disaster. In this spirit, the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has taken to the skies to provide relief supplies since the 1980s. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has forced the organization to adapt and overcome new challenges as it continues to fight COVID-19 and provide relief across the globe.
Flying in a Global Crisis
In 2019, UNHAS delivered a total of 35,100 metric tons of cargo including food, medical supplies, temporary shelters and other items to impoverished and vulnerable populations worldwide. Although the organization is officially managed and run by the World Food Programme (WFP), its services are utilized by many governmental and non-governmental groups alike, from UNICEF to private nonprofits like World Vision. A large part of the UNHAS mission has always been to provide relief in times of crisis, including epidemics and global health crises. But the threat posed by the novel coronavirus has led the organization to take new precautions in recent months, specifically in regions with vulnerable populations such as Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, among others.
UNHAS in Sudan and South Sudan
In recent years, UNHAS has played an instrumental role in supplying humanitarian aid in Sudan and South Sudan. In 2019 alone, it was responsible for the evacuation of hundreds of refugees and performed several dozen medical evacuations. The ongoing conflict between the Sudanese Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has caused many Sudanese to be placed in life-threatening situations and in need of immediate assistance.
To continue its work in Sudan, UNHAS published an updated guide of standard operating procedures for fighting COVID-19 in early April. These updated procedures mandate a number of safety requirements, which are to be observed by all UNHAS Sudan air operators and include pre-flight virus screenings and the wearing of protective masks and gloves. Additionally, the updated procedures state detailed instructions on sanitizing cabin and cargo space between flights. The new measures are intended not only to protect aid workers and volunteers but also those receiving aid as they may be more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
UNHAS in Nigeria
Nigeria is another country of high priority for UNHAS. Much of the agency’s assistance has recently been directed to the North-Eastern region of the country where violence by non-state actors has turned many in the area into internally displaced persons (IDPs). In 2019, UNHAS transported 147 metric tons of cargo to Nigeria, much of which was delivered to IDP communities near Nigeria’s northern border. The humanitarian organization also performed 30 life-saving evacuations in 2019 from villages with low ground accessibility.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began UNHAS faced a crippling obstacle with the lockdown of Maiduguri International Airport but was able to secure a presidential exemption in April. Like Sudan, UNHAS Nigeria has instituted its own set of COVID-19 protocols, including hygiene regimens and regular temperature checks for its operators and crews. As populations of IDPs become denser in the North East of the country, such measures become especially important for UNHAS helicopter crews as they are oftentimes the primary or even sole means of accessing remote communities.
Staying the Course
Despite the challenges in recent months, vital agencies like UNHAS is fighting COVID-19 through innovative means and reaching impoverished and threatened populations around the world, from Haiti to Afghanistan to Mali. With financial support from groups like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), the U.N. agency’s numerous flight crews and aid workers are persevering amid the COVID-19 conditions.