COVID-19 and the Victims of Conflict: Building Resilience for Displaced Ukrainians

Since 2014, the war in eastern Ukraine has destabilized the country and left around 1.5 million Ukrainians displaced within their own borders, making them the ninth largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic shakes global society, it has hit these vulnerable populations. By highlighting the weaknesses in a country’s economy, healthcare system, and social safety net, such tragedies create an urgent imperative—and an opportunity—for policymakers to recognize and improve upon these shortcomings.

For the past six years, Ukraine has faced an illegal Russian invasion that has destabilized the country. Upwards of 13,000 people have lost their lives, 1.5 million people have been displaced, and 3.5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the conflict. Ongoing tensions have additionally caused high inflation, economic disruption, and stunted trade, which makes it hard for displaced Ukrainians to find a firm footing on which to bounce back.

The international community has been central in supporting Ukrainians during these challenging times. In the early days of eastern Ukraine’s conflict, international humanitarian aid came in the form of emergency shelter provision, food and water supplies, health services, and other non-food items. In recent years, international donors and the Ukrainian government have shifted towards capacity-building in logistics, education, and healthcare. Programs promoting professional development and integration into local government in host communities have given many IDPs much more opportunity for political representation and socioeconomic stability.

But COVID-19 has placed new challenges on this fragile progress. While escaping the first wave of coronavirus outbreaks, the country saw a spike in cases in early July. As of August 8th, there have been more than 80,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,879 related deaths. Though donors like the US and EU have worked to help strengthen access to health care, it remains underfunded and susceptible to sudden shocks.

Ukraine’s IDPs have been hit particularly hard by this crisis. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) emphasized in April that IDPs around the world would be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus because they have limited access to health care, sanitation, and stable housing, and often face discrimination. Conflict-affected communities in Ukraine already face a high risk of contracting other infectious diseases, such as HIV and tuberculosis. The conditions that specifically puts them at risk, such as poor health and sanitation services, are the same as those that put them at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the current economic downturn has led to increases in the prices of food, transportation, and hygiene products. For example, one popular item, the “borsch basket” (potatoes, cabbage, onions, and carrots), saw a price increase of almost 30 percent from May to June. These market shocks most directly affect IDPs and those who rely on humanitarian aid because they have yet to find stable and substantial income sources. These shocks have taken a  significant toll on displaced households still getting themselves settled physically and professionally in their new locations.

But these vulnerable communities have remained active and organized during the pandemic, ensuring their visibility. IDP-led communities around the country have self-mobilized to sew and distribute masks for elderly people and those with disabilities. Grassroots initiatives like these are powerful demonstrations of a community’s dynamism during a crisis. Elsewhere, community-oriented groups are delivering food and information to their neighbors, including virtual seminars and conversation groups for IDP survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to find and share positive coping mechanisms during quarantine. The Ukrainian government and local NGOs should support these kinds of community connections.

In addition, regional humanitarian actors should contribute to the Ukraine 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). This plan supports the government in creating legal frameworks protecting IDPs, funds infrastructure for humanitarian access in conflict areas, facilitates dialogue on ceasefires and cross-border movement, and works to build access to water and sanitation for IDP households. The appeal was updated in June 2020 to account for the additional pressures COVID-19 has placed on Ukraine’s vulnerable populations. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) determined that $205 million is needed to properly respond to the crisis. So far, international donors like the US and EU have only funded about 20 percent of the HRP. This support is essential now that Ukraine is facing such an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Extending past emergency aid, the government and international donors should expand their support for tangible initiatives providing long-term economic stability, social integration, and political representation for IDP communities. These projects can range from something as small as organizing community food deliveries for the elderly to something as large as passing laws protecting welfare status for IDPs. Resilient, future-oriented planning must occur so that Ukraine’s rattled IDP community can stay upright going forward.