One year on from the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic

09 Mar 21

One year ago today, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic. At MSF – where providing medical care during epidemics is at the core of what we do – we faced a dual challenge. We needed to find a way to respond to outbreaks of this new disease, while keeping our regular medical programmes running and reacting to new emergencies, such as the conflict in Ethiopia and the Ebola outbreaks in Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea.

Brice de le Vingne, leader of MSF’s taskforce for COVID-19 in 2020, describes how the work of MSF contributed towards combatting COVID-19 in 2020 and how it continues to do so today. 

Spreading like wildfire

In January 2020, MSF’s first COVID-19 project opened in Hong Kong, focusing on health education for vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

MSF in Hong Kong has reached out to different vulnerable groups for face-to-face health promotion sessions on COVID-19.

By March, the epidemic was spreading like wildfire across Europe, and MSF launched projects in some of the most severely affected countries, including Belgium, Spain and Italy.

One year after its official declaration, the pandemic has not faded

We provided support to hospitals, sending in medical teams experienced in outbreaks of infectious diseases.

We also did what we could to train our colleagues in how to keep themselves safe, knowing how exposed health staff can be during outbreaks.

Increasingly we turned our attention to elderly people in care homes, whose age and living environment made them extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

Local fire brigade members disinfecting elderly care home Residencia Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes in El Royo, Soria province, Spain.

New challenges on a global scale 

From March onwards, as the epidemic continued to spread around the world, MSF followed in its tracks, opening new projects and adapting existing ones, as we always do during epidemics, but this time on a global scale.

Two workers at the COVID-19 centre in Al-Sahul, Yemen, which is supported by MSF, carry a heavy oxygen bottle to the ICU. A patient with COVID-19 may need up to six of these bottles per day.

But it was not just the scale that was different. At the first sign of other epidemics, such as cholera or yellow fever, we increase the size of our teams in the area, send in our experts and deliver tons of additional supplies.

But as coronavirus tightened its grip in more and more countries, many governments closed their borders. Moving medical staff and supplies to where they were need became very challenging.

MSF and municipal health system's staff arrives at a community on lake Mirini, Brazilian Amazon. The teams leave the vessel of the primary healthcare boat to carry out routine screening and vaccination from house to house.

Unfamiliar environments

{{ ctaright.node.field_explanation }}

But the differences are only superficial. At its heart, our response to COVID-19 has been no different from our other medical projects.

We focus on those places where the highest numbers of people are falling sick and dying, and we look for the most vulnerable people.

During the pandemic, this approach has seen us setting up medical projects in places where we rarely work, such as the US and several countries in Europe.

It has seen us helping groups of people we don’t often help, such as residents of care homes. But our medical reasoning has not changed.

MSF staff talk with a patient in a medical facility MSF set-up in Brussels, Belgium. People who live in the streets can come here for medical care if they have COVID-19, or if they need to isolate because they’re likely to be infected.

And a lot of the people we have assisted are not new to MSF: refugees and people on the move, people in rural areas with poor access to healthcare, neglected communities in cities, ...

MSF started activities linked to COVID 19 in France, focusing on vulnerable people living in the streets, such as migrants. On March 24th 2020, 700 people were evacuated from a camp in Aubervilliers, where they were living in precarious conditions.

MSF Response to COVID-19

In trying to help the people most in need, MSF has deployed a wide range of activities over the past 14 months, depending on what forms of support were most useful to local health systems.

We have organised large numbers of training sessions for frontline health staff, both in well-equipped hospitals in wealthy places and in very basic facilities.

Nafisatou, an MSF health promoter, shows a group of young girls who to wash their hands properly to protect themselves from COVID-19 in Mali.

We supported them with infection prevention and control and disinfection, triage of patients, staff and patient flow.

We have cared for patients: the mildly sick, the severely sick and the dying. In some places we’ve supported intensive care wards, in other places we ran them.

MSF treats patients with severe COVID-19 in an intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. Other teams support the hospital with training in infection prevention and control, and the organisation of care during an outbreak.

We have distributed masks and taught people how to employ simple preventive measures to keep themselves safe, such as keeping a distance and washing their hands.

We reached millions of people with these messages on social media. And we have provided many, many sessions of mental healthcare, mainly for staff on the frontline of the pandemic.

MSF donated 3.5 tonnes of personal protective equipment to health workers at the Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in Hubei province, China.

Resilience of frontline health staff

Having ourselves worked on the frontline of epidemics, we know first-hand how demanding, how exhausting and how stressful this work can be.

Many of the health staff who have worked so tirelessly over the past year had little or no previous experience of outbreaks of infectious diseases. None had experience of COVID-19.

MSF staff prepares a COVID-19 facility on the Greek island of Lesbos, near the refugee camp of Moria, to be ready for an outbreak of the disease amongst this very vulnerable people.

Faced with a new and unknown disease, lacking the tools to treat patients, scared of being infected at work and passing the infection on to loved ones at home – this pandemic has been an enormous emotional burden for frontline health staff.

We must take care of the people who take care of us

MSF nurse Norrulah Nasrat collects a sample from Mohammadin, a COVID-19 suspected patient, in MSF’s COVID-19 Treatment Centre in Herat, in Afghanistan.

COVID-19 one year later

One year after its official declaration, the pandemic has not faded.

Safe and effective vaccines now exist, but for the vast majority of people they are not yet available – and may not be for a long time.

A resident was visited by a family member for her birthday at Focused Care at Beechnut, a long term care facility in Houston, Texas. MSF conducted IPC training and mental health training with staff at Beechnut in Houston.

Often the people who fall through the cracks in the system when it comes to preventive measures and access to healthcare are the very same people who will again fall through the cracks for vaccination.

Dedicated to help the most vulnerable, it looks as if MSF’s role in this pandemic is not over yet.

Dayana Tabbarah, MSF health promoter, and Hala Hussein, MSF nurse, visit houses of patients who have agreed to participate in a shielding project in the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon.

Help support our teams: donate noW >