Localizing Emergency Response: COVID-19 and the Future of Humanitarian Mobilities (Part I)

William Jernigan

This is Part I of a two-part essay. The first section addresses current issues facing humanitarian mobilities, while the second charts potential paths forward. Read Part II here.

As countries responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by closing their borders and halting flows of people and goods, ruptures to the standard practices of provision and delivery of emergency humanitarian aid created unprecedented challenges. Natural disasters and non-COVID-related crises continued to wreak havoc around the world, including Category-5 Cyclone Harold, which struck multiple countries in the Pacific Islands in April, and Super-cyclone Amphan, which hit India and Bangladesh in June. Each displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Yet becuase of pandemic-related closures and restrictions, global emergency responses by humanitarian agencies were not possible to mobilize in their traditional forms. Humanitarian corridors, the avenues of prioritized mobility that typically form during crises as channels for goods and assistance, have not opened as usual. Humanitarian waivers/exemptions to entry have, in many cases, been stalled or blocked completely.

As the following examples will demonstrate, the new degree of restrictiveness raises novel questions and challenges, but also presents new opportunities to rethink how organizations can and should respond to crises.

In Vanuatu, where 160,000 people (of a population of 300,000) were displaced by Cyclone Harold in April, outside humanitarian workers were sidelined to keep the number of recorded coronavirus cases steady—at 0. In a striking reminder of how mobility, humanitarian or otherwise, is heavily mediated by state priorities, policies, and infrastructures, entries were banned entirely, and exemptions were not made even for emergency responders. Typical rapid-response methods like airdrops of goods and humanitarian air services for evacuations or staff transports to hard-to-reach locations were grounded, and goods shipped in were subject to 72-hour quarantine periods. Aid workers based on the 83 islands comprising Vanuatu found themselves overwhelmed and without international back-up. Further, barriers were placed even between islands within the country. This left many goods and responders stranded in the capital city, while much of the damage was wrought on outside islands. As Jacqueline De Gaillande, Secretary General of the Vanuatu Red Cross Society, explained, “We had a lot of Red Cross volunteers well trained and on the ground, but there was nothing to distribute because it was all here at Porta Villa.” Both goods and people were immobilized by the restrictions, causing chaos throughout the supply chain and raising questions for the future of humanitarian emergency responses, both immediate and long-term.

As the first major crisis of the COVID-19 era, the Cyclone Harold response is worth diving into, as it reveals significant insights about the state of humanitarian mobilities during the pandemic, about their potential futures, and about how we conceptualize of mobility overall. The broad restrictions on the movements of both humans and goods heavily emphasize the importance of contextualizing mobility within a range of outside mediating forces, rather than as occurring independently or in a vacuum, as too often response stories are framed. It also reinforces how dynamic life typically is, as the immobilizing processes were far more dramatic and disruptive than mobilizing ones. Considered together, while often the forces mediating mobility act behind the scenes, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have rendered them—at borders, points of entry, internal barrier zones, and others—visible to an unprecedented extent, precisely because they have been so immobilizing to groups typically free to pass. As such, this period presents an ideal moment for their study.

The response to Cyclone Harold also highlights the importance of looking beyond anthropocentric lenses when considering humanitarian mobilities, and mobilities in general. Human mobility is only one piece of an assemblage of heavily mediated movements, which also necessarily includes those of goods, skills, and ideas, among others—including the mobility of the virus itself, the cause of restrictions on people and goods in the first place. One piece cannot be understood without the others: opening up the lens to follow all of them as interconnected and mutually inseparable allows for a contextualized understanding of the challenges facing humanitarians—and policy-makers—when dealing with simultaneous but very different crises, particularly when one of the crises necessitates a freeze on mobility.

The rapid shifts in infrastructures and in the mediation of emergency responses constitute a particular form of shock mobility, outlined by Biao Xiang and defined as ‘sudden human movements in response to acute disruptions’. As Xiang points out, shock mobility, and short-term mobility in general, is often overlooked in migration studies, as most research focuses on longer-term movements. Nevertheless, shock mobilities are critically important and demand more research, particularly because of their long-term implications. As Naomi Klein writes (2008), once shocks end, the ‘return to normalcy’ is always actually a new normal, reconfigured by responses to the shock.

This particular type of shock mobility, those of humanitarian emergency responses, can be thought of as a form of what Xiang describes as substitution mobility, in which certain groups mobilize to a certain place and carry out actions on behalf of others. However, unlike other forms of substitution mobility, where those brought in eventually become integrated into the ‘new normal’, as in the example Xiang gives of labor dispatchment in China, the greater issue often arising in humanitarian emergency responses is the opposite. As was seen in the case of the Cyclone Idai response, as in others, the largest problem in humanitarian responses arise when the outsiders (humanitarians, in this case) leave (Pal et al. 2019). Though each organization has strategies and well-defined practices on when to exit, the withdrawal of international humanitarian organizations always entails some loss of technical skills, funding, and resources for the local community. Importantly, the extent to which this is true depends significantly upon the integration of local stakeholders from the beginning, and on the amount of capacity-building done with members of the local community, especially those who may be left in particularly vulnerable positions, as they are the groups which will remain long after the spectacle of the crisis is over and the funding has dried up. Increasingly localized coordination, then, though not a classic staple of historical humanitarian emergency response, is a clear path towards longer-term resilience. The pandemic, and its restrictions to outside entry, may actually provide ideal opportunities for testing new methods of increasingly localizing responses, which may under other circumstances have been considered too radical to trial.

William Jernigan works for the IOM Development Fund, at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. He holds an Master’s Degree in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)[i].

[i] The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the report do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of IOM concerting the legal status of any country, territory, city or area, or of its authorities, or concerning its frontiers or boundaries.