Doctors Without Borders Tackles COVID-19 Outbreak By Supporting Countries With Fragile Health Care

By Etan Vlessing 3/16/20 |

Coronavirus — graphic by Kaikoro/iStock
Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (DWB/MSF) knows how to operate when emergency and essential health care is hard to come by in a war or disaster zone.

So, as the global spread of the COVID-19 crisis threatens to swamp hospitals and health care workers everywhere, the medical charity is turning its attention to supporting countries with already fragile health systems and vulnerable communities as they battle the coronavirus outbreak.

"In many of the places where we work, there is limited capacity to respond to an influx of patients with a new disease that may require intensive care. Further, the diversion of healthcare capacity that may be required to respond to COVID-19 will also undoubtedly affect already vulnerable people's abilities to obtain medical care for other types of illnesses or injuries," MSF said in a statement on its website.

The medical charity said it had already offered infection control support in Italy, where it is directly supporting four hospitals, as well as Hong Kong and Greece, where DWB/MSF had called for the evacuation of refugee camps. The charity adds it has offered its health care support services to Iran to care for severe cases in that global hotspot, and in potential new ones.

"Depending on the evolution of the epidemic in France, we will make our experience, logistics and the know-how of our staff available to the response, if they can be useful," DWB/MSF added.

The charity said it has as a priority of maintaining existing medical programs for patients and extremely vulnerable communities the organization already supports around the world. That includes countries where DWB/MSF provides health care against malaria, measles, respiratory infections and other illnesses.

Compounding that work right now are increasing travel restrictions that hamper the charity's ability to move staff between countries and around the world.

"This continuity is now weakened by the restrictions (a ban on entering the country, preventive isolation for 14 days, etc.) imposed by governments on staff from certain countries, such as Italy, France and Japan, where some of our international staff come from, as well as the closure of borders and the suspension of certain air links. Despite these constraints, our strength lies in the fact that we can rely on locally recruited staff in our countries of intervention. They represent 90 per cent of our employees in the field," DWB/MSF said on its website.

Another obstacle is finding sufficient supplies of surgical masks, swabs, gloves and chemicals used by the charity's staff to diagnose COVID-19.

"We also are dealing with the consequences of global shortages of medical supplies, in particular personal protective equipment for health care staff. These regular health care programs are also preparing to deal with potential cases of COVID-19, especially making sure infection prevention measures are respected. We must be able to receive people with COVID-19 while making sure that no one is consequently infected in our structures, including other patients as well as staff," DWB/MSF said.

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