When the pandemic alarm went off

In March, the world was suddenly plunged into crisis. Planes were grounded, borders were closed. How would the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) be able to do its job now? “We were thrown into it,” says Marit Glad, Director of Programme Development and Support at NRC, from her tiny home office in the wardrobe.

A number of people have drawn historical comparisons to the years 1918–1920, when the so-called “Spanish flu” killed more people than the devastating World War that had just ended.

NRC realised the seriousness of the situation. At its head office in Oslo, the question was: “How will we be able to continue our work and deliver help to millions of people? How can we provide vital assistance such as shelter, camp management, food, clean water, legal aid and education for displaced children and adults?”

For Marit Glad, 40, and her team, it was no small task.

Choosing to stay

“I don’t think I have ever worked so much,” she says, through my computer screen. Behind her, I can see a rack of dresses; NRC’s Director of Programme Development and Support has her pandemic home office in her wardrobe.

From this tiny room, she has held Zoom meetings with colleagues around the world. But first and foremost, she has kept in touch with her team of 30–40 international technical experts.

“I am particularly proud of two of our achievements,” she explains.

“The first is that NRC, despite the pandemic, has been and still is on the ground where people need help. At the end of March, a number of humanitarian aid organisations withdrew their international staff from many countries. But we mostly managed to keep our management teams on the ground and our local staff did – and continue to do – a fantastic job.

“We succeeded because we have extensive experience in providing help to people who live in hard-to-reach areas.”

NRC vehicle got stuck in the mud under heavy rain in South Kivu province, DR Congo

Photo: Pacifique Mulungula/NRC
One of NRC vehicles got stuck in the mud following heavy rain in South Kivu province, DR Congo. Photo: Pacitique Mulungula/NRC

Marit says that NRC’s people are used to solving problems, getting to areas that are difficult to access, and communicating with people even if they can’t be physically present.

“In my team, which on a typical day is spread across seven countries, our workday has involved video conferencing – through Zoom and Skype – for several years. It wasn’t new to us.

“The second thing I am proud of is that we found our role as an organisation in all this. NRC doesn’t work directly with health issues, so we had to find out how we could best contribute,” she adds.

Do you want to help people forced to flee? Donate here.

Marit began her career studying and working in Italy. Among others, she has been employed by the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Policy, NATO and the Norwegian Atlantic Committee. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

Timeline of a pandemic

When a number of people fell ill in the city of Wuhan in China in December 2019, the doctors first thought it was pneumonia. But in early January 2020, the Chinese authorities announced that they had detected a new coronavirus.

By the end of January, people in the United States, Italy, Iran and North Korea were infected. By 7 March, more than 100,000 had been infected worldwide, and on 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the disease a pandemic.

Source: The Great Norwegian Encyclopedia

The indigenous communities named Amaparradó and Cañaveral were affected by combats between armed groups. These communities are located in the middle of the forest in north of Colombia (Antioquia department), three days by walk from the nearest village. 

Indigenous haunt, fish and grow plantain in the mountains for a living, but since the combats in august, they are confined and cannot go out to obtain food either access to basic services such as health.

To deliver 10 tons of aid for more than 180 families to this hard to reach areas, NRC supports the transport delivery by helicopter.

The aid was given by the Colombian government (Victims Unit) and the air delivery was possible through the emergency consortium funded by the European Union and implemented by NRC, CID, Diakonie and Tierra de Paz.

Photo: Marcela Olarte/NRC
Indigenous people living in very inaccessible areas of Colombia receive help from, among others, NRC. Food and other important goods must be transported by helicopter. Photo: Marcela Olarte/NRC

Working in conflict zones

NRC is a large organisation with a total of 15,000 aid workers in 33 countries, spread across Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Although NRC’s head office is located in Oslo, it doesn’t work with refugees in Norway.

Read more about NRC here. 

NRC focuses primarily on areas of war, conflict and uncertainty. These are places where it is very difficult to operate.

“The reason we focus on these areas is because not many other organisations do,” says Marit.

Hand washing kit on site Medina coura, Sévare
Photo credit: Vinabé MOUNKORO/NRC
People in Sévare, Mali, get water and thus an opportunity to better protect themselves from Covid-19. Photo: Vinabé Mounkoro/NRC

Support for the health sector

Marit says that, in their crisis meetings, the team agreed that NRC should continue to do what it was good at – rather than suddenly becoming a health operator.

“Because then we could end up doing more harm than good. There are other organisations that are much more effective than we are at running hospitals or providing medical help,” she explains.

Mohammed Abdu Al-Faqeeh,70, is an old man in Taiz' Al-Mawaset district. He is the breadwinner of his family. He is  one of the beneficiaries of the cash transfers for food and livelihood. NRC is targeting 2689 households in the district under the support of UKaid with YR45,000 per month for nine months.

Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC
Mohammed Abdu Al-Faqeeh, 70, lives in Taiz, in war-torn Yemen. He is responsible for feeding the family, but it is not easy in a country where most people go hungry. Here, he receives financial support from UK Aid and NRC so that he can buy what they need. Photo: Khalid Al-Banna/NRC

But maybe we could support the health sector?

“For example, we have always built schools and set up houses to give people a roof over their heads. We came to the conclusion that we could use our construction teams to build everything from quarantine centres to hospitals. In short, we could upgrade medical facilities. And we wanted to do this in collaboration with partners who work with health issues.”

How can we help prevent the spread of the virus?

Marit and her team asked themselves many questions about what could be done to prevent the virus from spreading.

“We know that many displaced people live in very close quarters, whether they are in refugee camps or in slum areas,” she says. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were worried that the virus would spread explosively in such densely populated areas, so we began to think of possible solutions.

“We could have asked the relevant authorities for more land, so that the people living in the camps had more space. But we knew that this wouldn’t be possible everywhere, so we had to think of other solutions to allow people to go into isolation and quarantine.”

Imagine you live in a tent with 12 people. You may have a grandmother who is particularly vulnerable or an uncle who has Covid-19.

“What can you do when you live in such close quarters? We know that soap, water and handwashing are not enough. You also have to keep your distance. Maybe we could help people set up some physical barriers inside the tents. We discussed things like that quite a lot in the beginning,” she continues.

Economic crisis is hitting hard

The coronavirus pandemic is not just a health crisis. All over the world, companies have been forced to close down and people are losing their jobs. At the end of August, NRC conducted a study to understand how displaced people were being affected financially.

"NRC’s Shelter team finalizing the rehabilitation process of an elementary school in Barzeh.
Schools are rehabilitated with new colours and designs that are more encouraging and child friendly"

Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC
NRC’s experts in the process of completing the rehabilitation of a primary school in Barzeh, north of Damascus in Syria. The schools are being painted with fresh colours that will inspire the children. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

“What we found was alarming,” Marit says. “As many as 75 per cent of those we spoke to said that they had lost their jobs or had their income reduced since March. As a result, many of them are struggling to pay their rent, and have had to cut what they used to spend on medicines.”

You can find the report here.

Marit says that NRC has given many people financial support to help them manage for a few extra months. However, this is not a lasting solution. NRC can also help people get back on their feet, get back to work, start a business again or receive a new education.

“But we can’t do all this alone. The international community must help to get the economy up and running in those countries that have many refugees or internally displaced people.

“It is incredibly important to include displaced people in rescue packages and any measures designed to stem the negative ripple effects of the pandemic. If not, we risk a situation where displaced people are left behind.”

Do you want to help people forced to flee? Donate here.

School during a pandemic

Schooling and education are two of the most important aspects of NRC’s work. Marit says that, in common with Norway and other European countries, most of the countries where NRC operates closed their schools when the pandemic arrived.

Read more about NRC and education here.

“Some countries have cautiously begun to reopen their schools, but many remain closed. Our education teams have made a formidable effort to provide something for the children.

“Similar to what the schools have done here in Norway, we have also tried to use digital solutions. But as we also know from Norway, home school and digital teaching are not ideal. So, we hope that the schools will be able to reopen soon,” she says.

Marit continues:

“We are preparing for reopening and trying to get things ready by upgrading the facilities to ensure better access to soap and water, for example. The problem is that many schools were already overcrowded and were already holding classes in shifts, so it is difficult to find solutions to help them maintain social distancing. But I have great faith that our colleagues on the ground will come up with something.”

Amid the movement restrictions and spread of Covid-19, ICLA  team at NRC office in Aden is providing remote counseling/ legal advice over the phone to prevent potential spread of Covid-19.

Photo: Fares Fuad/NRC
The pandemic does not prevent NRC from helping people – although a high risk of infection can sometimes put a stop to traveling. Here in Aden, Yemen, our experts provide legal advice over the phone. Photo: Fares Fuad/NRC

From previous health crises where schools have been closed, such as the Ebola crisis, we know that many children unfortunately do not return to class on the day the schools reopen. Marit says that this is something NRC is very worried about. She expects that we will need to develop specific measures to get children back to class when the schools reopen.

“The pandemic risks setting back the education sector in the countries where we work by many years,” she says. “In recent years, we have seen a positive trend, where more children have started receiving education. The progress we have worked so hard to achieve may now be lost. It’s very sad to think about.”

A royal meeting

Did Marit and her experts ever panic? Or does she feel like they have managed to stay on top of the situation the whole time?

“No, we haven’t felt panicked. But we always thought: ‘What if we can’t manage to continue doing what we do? What would happen to all those who depend on our help?’ Unfortunately, the pandemic has not ended war and conflict, so people will still need help. There has been a lot to deal with.”

One day she received an invitation to a digital meeting with NRC’s patron, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway. He wanted to gain insight into how the pandemic was affecting various Norwegian companies and organisations.

So, Marit Glad turned on a virtual screen background.

And met with him in her wardrobe.

“Apart from the fact that I now sit at home and work, my working day is largely the same as before. Because I had a lot of Zoom meetings before Covid-19 as well,” says Marit. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC