Covid-19: ‘No one will be safe until everyone is safe’

A Nepalese woman and her daughter wear face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus in Lalitpur, Nepal, on May 15, 2021. Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

As richer nations start to see the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccines, in Asia and Latin America the pandemic is still raging. Swiss Solidarity, the humanitarian arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), has launched a new appeal to help those most in need.

This content was published on May 30, 2021 - 10:00

With its nearly two billion inhabitants, South Asia currently accounts for half of all known new Covid-19 cases worldwide. More than three new infections are recorded there every second, the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF warned on May 21. Each minute, over three people die from the disease.

The situation is particularly dire in India, which last week registered its highest number of daily deaths since the start of the pandemic. But the alarm is now also sounding in neighbouring Nepal, where the virus is spreading exponentially.

New infections there have shot up from around 150 to over 8,000 a day in a matter of weeks – a figure that is surely far below the real one, according to the UN Country Team in Nepal. The health system, more fragile than India’s, is overwhelmed and severely lacking basic medical supplies. Switzerland has just sent 30 tonnes of materials, after a previous shipment to India in early May.

Other very vulnerable countries in the region, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are also at great risk, according to UNICEF.

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Progression of the virus in Latin America

On the other side of the planet, Latin America is also badly hit. The region has the highest number of confirmed deaths to date. Besides Brazil, where the pandemic has raged out of control for months, the situation has deteriorated sharply in several countries in Central and South America, in particular in Peru, which has one of the worst mortality rates, and in Bolivia, now grappling with its third wave.

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In most countries in these regions, fewer than one in ten people have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. This is nowhere near enough to stem the pandemic.

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Chain reaction

Fragile infrastructure, poverty and pre-existing political instability raise fears of catastrophic and lasting consequences, warns Ernst Lüber, who heads Swiss Solidarity’s humanitarian programmes department. This is why the humanitarian foundation, which is linked to SBC (SWI’s parent company), has launched a new appeal for donations.

In many countries, access to medical care was a major problem already before the crisis; today, their health systems are on the brink of collapse. Media outlets have relayed desperate scenes of people in urgent need of oxygen cylinders or being turned away from hospitals. Moreover, those suffering from chronic diseases other than Covid-19, which are widespread in emerging countries, can no longer receive the necessary care.

The spread of new variants of the virus has further complicated matters and exposed the inadequacy of certain government responses, “in particular in middle-income countries [like India and Brazil], which in theory stood a better chance of pulling through,” says Lüber.

The pandemic is also taking a devastating economic toll. In many countries, a large part of the population depends on the informal economy and day labour. Job losses resulting from sanitary restrictions can set off “chain reactions that are difficult to reverse later on,” Lüber cautions.

“People lose their entire income and have to sell off assets that they need in order to earn a living or get into debt; children no longer go to school; people who were working in cities have to return to the countryside,” thereby helping spread the virus in rural areas where health care is even less accessible.

‘We cannot just accept the situation as it is’

The “Coronavirus International” fundraising campaign was launched by Swiss Solidarity in October and has raised over CHF9 million ($10 million). The money has been used to support the projects of 16 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working locally in 14 countries. “We have now almost exhausted these funds, but the problem is still there,” Lüber says.

How to donate

Donations to the “Coronavirus International” fundraising campaign can be made directly online via the Swiss Solidarity website, or to its postal account 10-15000-6 with the reference “COVID INT”.

As part of the “Coronavirus International” campaign, Swiss Solidarity is working with 16 NGOs, including Caritas, the Red Cross, Helvetas and Doctors Without Borders.

Projects have so far been supported in 14 countries, mainly in South Asia and Latin America, but also in some countries in the Middle East and Africa. Supplementary aid has moreover been provided to India and Brazil.

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The projects follow two main approaches: the first involves direct socio-economic assistance for those most affected by the restrictions (people working in the informal sector, migrants, displaced persons, marginalised groups). The goal here is to “cushion the economic shock by forestalling chain reactions and helping people to bounce back,” Lüber explains.

The other priority is health care and entails support for health services, the provision of medical supplies, awareness campaigns, etc. Just a few dozen francs can already make a difference. According to the NGO Helvetas, a donation of CHF120 can buy hygiene kits for ten people, for instance.

As richer nations start to see the end of the tunnel thanks to the vaccination roll-out, aid organisations are stressing the importance of collective action to fight the pandemic – on the one hand because “no one will be safe until everyone is safe”; but above all out of solidarity. As Lüber concludes, “we cannot just accept the situation as it is.”

How Swiss Solidarity came to be

Swiss Solidarity started out in 1946 as a radio programme called the Chaîne du Bonheur, broadcast from Lausanne by French-speaking Swiss public radio (now Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) which is a branch of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation). The initiative quickly spread to Switzerland’s German and Italian-speaking regions, where it was called the “Glückskette” and “Catena della Solidarietà”, respectively.

The programme initially involved regular radio broadcasts aimed at collecting donations for humanitarian causes. In 1983, the Chaîne du Bonheur was granted legal status as an autonomous foundation, while remaining closely linked to the Swiss public broadcasting sector, as its humanitarian arm. In 2013, it took on the English name Swiss Solidarity. Today, the foundation’s fundraising appeals are systematically relayed by public media channels.

The donations collected are distributed among 24 humanitarian partner NGOs. The projects supported focus on long-term efforts, such as reconstruction after disasters, in Switzerland and around the world.

Since its creation, Swiss Solidarity has organised over 250 fundraising campaigns and raised over CHF1.8 billion in donations, making it Switzerland’s largest humanitarian aid donor.

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