Humanitarians reflect on one year of the COVID-19 crisis

Humanitarian aid team members hand food to a participant.

It has been one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since that moment, COVID‑19 has taken the lives of over 2.5 million people and sickened tens of millions more, crossing thresholds that once seemed unimaginable. More infectious COVID‑19 strains are currently spreading in many of the countries where Mercy Corps works, including the United States and across Europe.

For many people, the World Health Organization’s declaration was the moment that they realised they would be living in a pandemic world. They darted to their local grocery store in search of non-perishable foods and toilet paper only to find empty shelves. Others loaded computer monitors and desk chairs into their cars, unaware of how long they would end up working from home. While many of these moments are universal, others are not.

The vast majority of Mercy Corps’ global team members are from the countries in which they serve and have had a front-row seat to watch how the virus has disrupted life in their communities. They have had to adhere to strict lockdowns, adapt to challenging and changing restrictions and put their own fears aside to provide critical aid to help those who needed it most.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the COVID‑19 pandemic, Mercy Corps asked a few of our team members to share their experiences responding on the front lines of this global crisis and reflect on what it means to be a humanitarian. 

Meet Bahaa from Jordan

Headshot of bahaa.
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Bahaa, shown here, and his team have been working tirelessly to ensure that children with disabilities can access the services they need during the pandemic.

A trained speech and hearing specialist, Bahaa Abu Sweilem joined Mercy Corps Jordan’s Inclusive Education team in 2013, helping young Syrian refugees and Jordanian children with disabilities succeed in the classroom. He never imagined having to provide these critical services during a global pandemic.

Like many countries, Jordan closed schools across the country in March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID‑19, including education centres inside the country’s largest refugee camps.

In response to the challenges posed by the closures, Mercy Corps quickly began providing online education sessions for parents and students alike. In these sessions, Bahaa’s team shared links to relevant therapeutic exercises, learning tools and craft ideas that parents could do with their children at home during the pandemic.

“When the lockdown reached the point of shutting down the country completely, our work shifted to providing remote services to children with disabilities, which was difficult in an indescribable way because they need special care and close follow-up,” shared Bahaa. “Another issue we faced was that the internet connections in the camps are weak, making it difficult for many families to tune into these virtual sessions.”

Mercy Corps helped resolve this by investing in additional internet services in the camps to improve access and load speeds during the lockdown.

An educator teaches a young person while wearing personal protective equipment.
Bahaa’s coworker, Rania Al-Mubarak, meets one-on-one with a child enrolled in our Inclusive Education programme.
An educator leads an online lesson to a student via mobile phone.
A learning assistant films a craft project tutorial for parents and students living in Jordan’s Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps.

While the challenges are great, they inspired Bahaa and his team to think outside of the box. After receiving permission from camp authorities to resume some in-person sessions, Bahaa’s team began to produce trolley carts at our workshops inside the camps to safely transport students with disabilities from their homes to Mercy Corps’ centres to meet with their physical therapists and learning assistants.

In the centres, Mercy Corps ensures that all COVID‑19 safety measures are followed, including taking temperatures, frequent handwashing, wearing face masks and ensuring that these sessions are one-on-one to prevent the spread of COVID‑19. In addition, our centres are regularly deep cleaned and children can also easily shift their sessions online.

The future is uncertain but Bahaa’s team remains optimistic. His coworker Rania Al-Mubarak, who volunteers with Mercy Corps’ Inclusive Education Programme as a learning assistant, adds: “Our work restores hope for parents who have lost it, especially during the pandemic. Many parents view Mercy Corps as a source of hope, helping them take better care of their children. This overwhelms me with happiness and helps me move past my fear of COVID‑19. This work is my true passion.”

Meet Nurdianto from Indonesia

A person hands someone a hygiene kit.
Despite the risks, Mercy Corps’ Indonesia Response team responded quickly in the aftermath of the recent earthquake in West Sulawesi. Pictured here, Nurdianto helps distribute critical aid including, clean water, food, shelter kits, hygiene supplies and other essentials.

“I have experienced how it felt when we lost almost everything … so I know how difficult it is for the communities to keep surviving during this difficult year.”

‑ Nurdianto, Deputy Programme Manager, Disaster Recovery

Nurdianto, who prefers to go by his first name, knows what it’s like to lose almost everything within a matter of seconds. A survivor of the Indian Ocean tsunami that slammed into Indonesia in 2004, he has dedicated his life to helping others recover and rebuild their lives after disaster.

When COVID‑19 first took hold in Indonesia, Nurdianto immediately volunteered to lead Mercy Corps’ COVID‑19 response in Palu, where tens of thousands have been living in temporary shelters since 2018 after a 7.4‑magnitude earthquake destroyed entire neighbourhoods and triggered another tsunami.

Then in January of this year, a series of deadly disasters struck Indonesia, culminating in a devastating 6.2‑magnitude earthquake in West Sulawesi. This was where Nurdianto deployed next.

A person surveys damage to a building.
Nurdianto surveys the damage to an important government building days after a major 6.2-magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia in early January 2021.

Despite the purpose he finds in humanitarian service, Nurdianto is also human. Like many other aid workers during the pandemic, Nurdianto grapples with the reality that his work may put him at a greater risk for contracting COVID‑19. He is especially worried about the risk to his own family, whom he hasn’t seen since he arrived in West Sulawesi.

“One of the biggest challenges is that our West Sulawesi Earthquake Response is in a Red Zone – Indonesia’s highest risk rating for COVID‑19. Here, many people are living in crowded tents after the recent earthquake, making it impossible to social distance,” he shared.

Nurdianto is taking careful precautions to ensure that he doesn’t bring the virus home with him. “My family is far from West Sulawesi. We speak often over video messaging apps like WhatsApp but I won’t see them until our response is over in late March.”

Despite the challenges, Nurdianto sees light at the end of the tunnel. “I hope the affected communities, especially the vulnerable people and all the first responders like us can get the COVID‑19 vaccine soon as it will protect us and help communities recover faster,” he shared. “And I also hope that I can smile again without a mask.”

Meet Domingos from Timor Leste

A person using a recycled bottle hand washing station.
Domingos uses one of the handwashing stations constructed out of recycled plastic bottles before entering Mercy Corps’ office in Timor Leste’s capital city of Dili.

“The pandemic has shown us that we need to pay more attention to our health.”

‑ Domingos Tilman, Plastic Behaviour Change and Communication Coordinator

Having lived in Timor Leste for most of his life, Domingos is very familiar with the challenges his small country faces – from plastic pollution to poverty and now, COVID‑19. “The beauty and the health of people living in Timor Leste’s capital city of Dili is marred with plastic waste thrown on roadsides and beaches and burned throughout the city,” shared Domingos.

When COVID‑19 infections began to be reported around the world, Domingo’s team took stock of the resources they had available for their response, finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places.

Using more than 90,000 recycled plastic bottles, Domingo’s team helped construct 78 handwashing stations across Dili in preparation for the city’s eventual reopening. “Dili is a small city so 78 handwashing stations are more than enough to keep people safe,” Domingos said.

His team helped place these handwashing stations at critical points around the city, including entrances to highly-trafficked buildings and government institutions, helping people remember to wash their hands frequently to prevent viral spread while also advancing climate change goals.

“One of the most positive things to come out of this pandemic is that people are paying more attention to their health and hygiene. By washing their hands properly, using face masks and taking other precautions, people can protect themselves against more diseases than just COVID‑19,” he shared.

One year after the start of the pandemic, Timor Leste has only reported 113 cases of COVID‑19 and all patients have made a full recovery. And this gives Domingos hope for the future.

Together, we can reshape our world

Despite the risks to their own health and well-being, Bahaa, Nurdianto, Domingos and other members of Mercy Corps’ global team of humanitarians stepped up to meet the challenges sparked by the COVID‑19 crisis head-on. They persevered through some of the darkest moments of the pandemic, showing their commitment, compassion and humanity along the way.

So far to date, against all odds and with generous support from people like you, our teams around the world have reached more than 15 million people through our COVID‑19 response. Now, as we prepare to take on what’s next, we will continue to hold steady in our response for as long as we are needed. Because only when COVID‑19 is eradicated everywhere will we be able to achieve a better world for all.

Join us in building a more equitable world.