Tracking the impact of COVID-19

on UK support to other disasters


Initial report to the UK Parliament International Development Committee


Written evidence submitted to the International Development Committee inquiry ‘Humanitarian crises monitoring: impact of coronavirus’



Roger Few & Iain Lake,

University of East Anglia













Since 30 April a small team of researchers based at the University of East Anglia, Norwich UK have started work tracking how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting UK aid organisations’ intervention in other disaster situations overseas – both in relief and early recovery work. The focus of this initiative is especially on assistance related to health and wellbeing. The purpose of this report is twofold:

a)      To present brief background findings from initial scoping work

b)      To introduce the project to the Select Committee and initiate channels for continuing evidence exchange as the research continues



The project


  1. Aim: contribute to understanding of how the threat of COVID-19 and the responses to the pandemic have impacted on responses to other disasters and humanitarian emergencies in LMICs, and draw lessons for current and future response planning.


  1. Objective: track and analyse any impact of the pandemic on the capacity, resources and operations of UK agencies to respond to the health impacts of other disasters in LMICs.


  1. The scope of the study covers both assistance in current disasters and support for recovery from recent disaster events. We plan to look at operations across UK agencies (governmental and non-governmental) to build a profile for the sector as a whole that conveys the nature of change to ongoing or expected activities. Within the sector we will look especially at health-related interventions, by which we mean activities to support health care, nutrition and WASH through emergency provision, rehabilitation of services and reconstruction of infrastructure.


  1. The types of impact that might potentially arise include:

-          Impacts of travel/access restrictions etc. on UK personnel’s input into interventions

-          Impacts of freight restrictions on provision of supplies from UK agencies

-          Impacts of of the refocus of UK agency priorities and funds to humanitarian support for COVID-19 response

-          Impacts on UK disaster programming of national partners’ diversion of priorities

-          Other impacts that emerge as we undertake the research


  1. As well as collating general information on humanitarian/recovery support to LMICs, we believe the most effective way to build profiles of impact and draw lessons for the future is to focus on specific case studies. For each case study we are gathering contextual information as well as attempting to find out as much as we can about how UK support is progressing during the pandemic crisis. We have presently selected 3 cases for detailed tracking and analysis:

a)      Cyclone Idai  in southern Africa (2019) as a recent, acute hazard event for which recovery support is continuing

b)      Locust infestation in East Africa (2019-2020), as an ongoing, slow-onset hazard event that has extended into the pandemic period

c)      Cyclone Harold in the South Pacific (2020), as a new major hazard event that has occurred in the period since the pandemic declaration.

Other past, ongoing and new cases may be added to the list as the work progresses.


  1. The research work has two overlapping phases: collation of information from documents, reports, articles, blogs, media outputs and publicly-accessible social media posts; key informant interviews with agency personnel (remotely undertaken and/or in person within the UK if restrictions permit). The idea by the second phase is to move to an analysis of why and how impacts have happened, and of their effects on the aid programming and the progress of relief/recovery on the ground. We also aim to explore with stakeholders what lessons may therefore be gained for contingency planning around disaster aid in preparation for future pandemic events.


  1. At this preliminary stage, information available is limited to a general picture of the situation for each case, drawn from publicly-accessible web-based resources. The more detailed profiles and analyses for each case will develop successively over the forthcoming three months, as the situation unfolds in real time and the research team has the chance to undertake and analyse interviews.



Disaster cases


  1. We hope that the following brief details provide some initial contextual insights into the direct and indirect effects that the pandemic (and the magnitude of societal responses to the pandemic) is having on the capacity of governmental, non-governmental and multi-lateral agencies to maintain their support to LMICs. We aim to provide specific information on UK aid agencies’ disaster support progress over the coming weeks and months.


Cyclone Idai


  1. One of the worst cyclones on record to have hit Africa, causing 1300 deaths in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. It was a long-lived storm that varied in intensity (two peaks reaching intense tropical cyclone status), and made two passages over land over the course of 4-18 March 2019. Winds, floods and storm surge caused catastrophic damage in and around Beira in Mozambique, and at least 1,850,000 people were affected in the country. Interventions at an early stage by DFID and a range of INGOs, with a gradual shift over time to early recovery and now recovery programming. Some disaster-affected areas, especially in Zimbabwe, have also been affected by the regional slow-onset drought and food crisis in southern Africa. In April, OCHA reports that more than 128,000 people need humanitarian assistance in 12 cyclone-affected districts of Zimbabwe.


  1. Recovery interventions are ongoing by UK agencies. For example, several DEC (UK Disasters Emergency Committee) agencies all indicated that their post-disaster operations were continuing in 2020, including Action Against Hunger, Action Aid, CAFOD, Concern, World Vision.


  1. On a needs basis, the emergence of COVID-19 inevitably multiplies the difficulties faced by the cyclone-affected populations as they continue to try to rebuild livelihoods and wellbeing. A recent FEWSNET report (4/20) indicates that food security had been improving in some zones of Mozambique since a phasing out of emergency action, but the complexity of the pandemic crisis will likely increase the need for further support in many areas. In Zimbabwe, OCHA (4/20) reported that restrictions established by the government for control of COVID-19 delayed the distribution of food and cash assistance to 2 million households affected by the combination of recent humanitarian crises.


Locust infestation in East Africa


  1. Since June 2019, huge migratory swarms of desert locust have swept across much of the Horn of Africa and into other East African countries, in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania. Heavy rains since October have exacerbated the spread. By January 2020, locust invasions in Ethiopia and Somalia were reported to be the worst in 25 years, and in Kenya the worst in 75 years. The devastation of crops presents severe threats to food security and nutrition across the region, especially given the context of recent severe droughts, floods and population displacement. Early efforts to combat the invasions had some success, but another round of breeding among the surviving locusts is raising the threat further and there are fears in some countries that new swarms could emerge prior to harvest seasons due in June/July.
  2. UK agencies have been active in assistance to manage the crisis through locust control and food aid. For example, UK DEC agencies that have been supporting food security in the Horn of Africa, including Oxfam, Concern, Save the Children. UK support for the crisis was ongoing at the time of the pandemic declaration.


  1. Reports from April 2020 discuss how travel restrictions implemented as COVID-19 response have caused some disruption to locust control spraying and humanitarian food supply efforts in the region. Flight restrictions have delayed deliveries of pesticides. Relief organisations have stepped up attempts to set up emergency food stocks now in expectation of harvest failures, and the restrictions have affected access for distribution of that aid. Even when humanitarian groups have been granted official travel rights their access has sometimes been thwarted by local level officials. There are concerns that such problems will intensify if the disease incidence worsens. Save the Children (4/20) also raised the issue that delivery of their services ultimately relies on local staff, whose capacity to do so will inevitably be affected by safety concerns for themselves and their families.


Cyclone Harold


  1. Storm Harold began to impact the Solomon Islands on 2 April 2020, and strengthened to a category V tropical cyclone as it passed through Vanuatu, before affecting Fiji and Tonga up to 10 April. The cyclone caused at least 31 deaths and widespread destruction to homes, schools, medical clinics, as well as damaging food crops and water supplies across region. Vanuatu (where the cyclone made first landfall at Espritu Santo on 5 April) was heavily affected. Harold was the second strongest cyclone ever to have hit Vanuatu, after Cyclone Pam in 2015, affecting over 160,000 people and creating severe shortages of shelter, water, and food. In Sanma province, over 90% of houses and 60% of schools were lost.


  1. External assistance to the region has been directed by multiple international sources, including funding, supplies and logistics. A number of UK agencies have, or are attempting to contribute, among them DFID, UNICEF UK and Oxfam. However, there are indications that the level of support reaching the region is considerably constrained compared with Cyclone Pam, when, for example, several DEC agencies were heavily involved.


  1. A number of reports have emerged during April that discuss the problems being faced by many international agencies and national governments in Vanuatu and Fiji in their operations, owing to the restrictions caused by COVID-19, despite low levels of the disease in the South Pacific at present. These include restrictions on the international movement of aid workers to the region and of humanitarian supplies, and the delays caused by quarantines when they arrive. Similar issues have arisen at national level, in the internal distribution of aid between islands. Moreover, there are also concerns expressed that the disaster has ‘fallen under the radar’ in the context of the global pandemic, receiving low media and political attention in comparison to Cyclone Pam, and lower levels of funding than might otherwise have been expected.


  1. Agencies are, however, in the process of critically assessing the situation and looking at ways to mitigate these operational issues, and it will be instructive to gather insights across agencies as these contingency mechanisms develop to collate lessons on maintaining support amid global crises. 


Request to the Committee











8th May 2020