Is COVID-19 A Complex Humanitarian Emergency?


Betsy Camara, Coverdell Fellow, HATS Researcher, MPH Student

Thinking back two years ago, February 2020, no one could have imagined how life-altering these next two years would be. We’ve sacrificed in-person, face-to-face interactions for sanitized and safe zoom rooms and socially-distanced meetups. Even masked up and 6ft apart, some of us have fallen ill to COVID-19 and lost friends, family members, colleagues, and neighbors. Under the stress of politicized public health protocols and mask mandates, we’ve learned to navigate and coexist in this “new normal.” From new jobs, remote working, returning to school, moving across the world, or making drastic career moves, these past two years have been unprecedented. But how complex is this pandemic really? Has COVID turned into a complex humanitarian emergency?

What is a Complex Humanitarian Emergency? A disaster event caused by, and subsequently resulting in, complicated social, medical, and political conditions that lead to suffering and death.[1] CHEs often arise alongside factors of man-made struggle such as war, poverty, overpopulation, environmental destruction or change, and natural disasters. CHEs require a broad and integrated response to resolve political conflicts and social inequities.

CHEs are crises of opportunity. CHEs result from dramatic events (i.e. a Natural Disaster) that lead to a culmination and “coordination” of other hazards, such as infectious disease outbreaks, limited access to food, water, housing; increase in violence, and failing health infrastructures. CHEs expose current systemic inequities within a society, disproportionately affecting marginalized groups.

Who is most at risk during CHEs? Anyone already vulnerable to systemic infrastructure degradation: children under 5 years old are extremely susceptible to infectious disease without access to healthcare, anyone with a chronic illness who cannot access life-saving medications and healthcare services, poor and marginalized groups of society who already have limited access to services and limited social capital, and elderly persons who have limited access to social services and support systems.

Can CHEs be prevented? CHEs may not be entirely preventable, but resolving underlying political, societal, and cultural inequities before an event occurs can prevent deaths and undue suffering lessen the degree of damage.

So, is COVID-19 a CHE? While we have not experienced a major natural disaster that could have triggered a CHE within the US, we have seen (and experienced) complete destruction of the health, political, social, and cultural systems with the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic has exposed the widespread inequities of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in our society: the elderly (who were treated as “acceptable losses”), women (more likely to lose jobs than men, shouldered the bulk of child-rearing and housework, and faced higher incidence of domestic violence), Latinx communities (3x more likely to get sick than white Americans), African Americans (2x more likely to die of COVID compared to white Americans), Indigenous populations (inadequate water supply and infrastructure), and widespread racism and discrimination against Asian Americans.[2] The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread inequities and vulnerabilities surrounding discriminate displacement, overcrowding, malnutrition, inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene, and stigmatization against marginalized groups in the US.

COVID-19 continues to be a crisis in the US due to a complete disregard of the systemic social, cultural, and political inequities that affect the most marginalized in our communities. It will continue until we take a CHE approach in addressing these challenges at all levels of humanitarian response, from the top (i.e. governmental) to the bottom (i.e. interpersonal).[3]  We can only strive to improve this current crisis in 2022, but what will our next two years look like?

[1] Pakes, B. (2019, February 13). complex humanitarian emergency. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[2] Yong, E. (2021, July 31). Why the Pandemic Is So Bad in America. The Atlantic.

[3] Odlum, A., James, R., Mahieu, A., Blanchet, K., Altare, C., Singh, N., & Spiegel, P. (2021). Use of COVID-19 evidence in humanitarian settings: the need for dynamic guidance adapted to changing humanitarian crisis contexts. Confl Health 15, 83.