By Martin Faller
Governance and Board Support
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
This story is about the wisdom and courage of adopting a resolution at the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IC33), only a few months before the rise of a global pandemic that changed the world. It is about its value and relevance in real-life emergencies, and how it became one of the most important tools to position National Societies at the center of COVID-19 operations, and as allied and supported members of a global movement. It also reflects on how the Movement has had to change, connect, and adapt in the midst of this crisis.
Geneva, 12 December 2019. The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (States, National Societies, IFRC and ICRC) adopts by consensus a resolution entitled ‘Time to act: Tackling epidemics and pandemics together’
Geneva, 26 March 2020. The Movement launches a revised emergency appeal for 800 million Swiss francs to help the world’s most vulnerable communities halt the spread of COVID-19 and recover from its effects.
Geneva, 28 May 2020. COVID-19 continues to threaten many aspects of peoples’ lives, amplifying inequalities, destabilizing communities and reversing development gains made in the past decade. The Movement appealed for 3.1 billion Swiss francs to urgently scale up its global response to curb COVID-19’s rapid spread and assist the world’s most vulnerable people amid the pandemic. This coordinated appeal builds on the previous one and aims to increase life-saving services and support to address both the immediate impacts of the pandemic and its long-lasting social and economic repercussions.
National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ local volunteers and staff are delivering life-saving services and equipment to contain the spread of the pandemic and address the deterioration in peoples’ livelihoods and socio-economic situations. Protecting and supporting these communities requires a sustained and coordinated scale-up of Red Cross and Red Crescent local action alongside ongoing global response efforts. This pandemic is creating crisis-level needs that will endure long into the future, whether for mental health support, medical assistance in conflict zones or support for livelihoods.
Unknown to the people that were gathered in the halls of the Geneva International Conference Centre, a virus would soon unravel and have unimaginable impacts on the world. In the months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it would have been hard to grasp the scale of such an outbreak. While the 2400 participants at the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent were discussing the prevention and control of pandemics and epidemics, no-one could have predicted that this would happen so quickly into the following year – and that events like the International Conference, where people meet face to face, would not be possible for the foreseeable future.
One of the most influencial and timely decisions of the Conference was Resolution 3 on tackling epidemics and pandemics together. Through this commitment, States, National Societies, the ICRC and IFRC expressed their ‘deep concern over the threat that epidemics and pandemics pose to global health, the economy and stability, particularly in the world’s most vulnerable areas and in complex settings where epidemics may be particularly difficult to address’.
In a global collaborative effort, thousands of staff and volunteers from all components of the Movement were mobilized to contribute to the COVID-19 response and see the effective implementation of this resolution – which was immediately utilized to remind States of the central role and capacity of National Societies, the IFRC and the ICRC as key responders to this crisis. It was circulated widely, amidst calls for improved access and support – particularly for National Societies alongside their public authorities.
What also shifted significantly was the way in which the world was connecting. New communication technologies and platforms were swiftly tested and adopted. People from all over the globe would share their experiences and concerns online and develop plans, advocacy strategies, operational programming – all virtually. These virtual meetings were changing the style of the dialogue as they pushed people to adapt globally in their communication and working styles, and often required more patience for active listening. They would bring together staff and volunteers who continued to work face to face with communities and marginalized groups living in the virtual shadows of society. It also forced many to re-think ways in which global platforms, like the International Conference, could potentially be conducted online.
Stories would be exchanged online about feeding underserved children affected by school closures in Los Angeles. Volunteers in many countries distributing food to people in need after many food kitchens had to be closed, Bangladesh Red Crescent volunteers working in refugee camps and in mother and child health care centers. Lebanese Red Cross medical emergency teams who are on alert around the clock and ready to jump in their ambulances and help. Mental health and psychosocial support staff at the Danish Red Cross working 24 hours shifts. Venezuelan Red Cross volunteers providing health care support, Turkish Red Crescent providing cash assistance to millions of Syrian refugees, and the Afghan Red Crescent volunteers travelling with mobile clinics to places which are out of reach for the government health system. Many of these stories are both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
In addition to the shifts and adaptation we’ve seen in communication during the pandemic, the reality is that the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are working actively on the ground to overcome the effects of COVID-19, to protect the most vulnerable populations, and to avoid much larger and longer-term challenges in the future.
The resolution from the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red recognized the unique and valuable role of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in addressing pandemics, emphasizing in particular the importance of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies working in close cooperation with national authorities. It also called for enabling and facilitating the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement components (National Societies, IFRC and ICRC) to contribute to pandemic control and response – exactly in situations like we are facing during COVID-19.
While the decisions taken and commitments made during the International Conference may seem a world away from operational realities, this is not the case. We see their relevance in situations like we are facing today with the COVID-19 pandemic. We see the possibility and importance of harnessing these commitments in an effort to do better for those most affected. And it was due to the courage and wisdom of the members of the International Conference that such decisions were adopted, and which have proved to be critical to this very day.
More about this topic
Time to act: Tackling epidemics and pandemics together
Red Cross Red Crescent Statutory Meetings
The coordinated COVID-19 appeal
IFRC GO platform for all appeals and response documents relating to the Global COVID-19 operationsIFRC GO platform
Mapping COVID-19 Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers’ experience and insights.
Sokoni – discussion forums on COVID-19 for Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers and staff