Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has brought many aspects of life to a standstill, conflicts and other crises have not stopped. Action to save lives, alleviate suffering and bring relief to vulnerable people remains imperative, especially when humanitarian needs are increasing on the ground. The coronavirus prevention and control measures were locking down the transport of much-needed aid, personal protective equipment, and humanitarian workers to critical areas.
Against this background, the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge initiative was set up in May this year as a time-bound and targeted support to help the delivery of medical equipment needed for the coronavirus response, sustain the flow of humanitarian supplies and facilitate the movement of humanitarian staff to and from the most vulnerable countries.
Reaching the most vulnerable areas
Since the start of its operations, the air bridge conducted more than 65 flights and delivered more than 1,150 tonnes of material, ranging from nutrition support and flood response equipment, to personal protection equipment and a fully-fledged field laboratory for coronavirus testing. The flights also transported nearly 1,700 medical and humanitarian staff and other passengers.
With a total budget of €10 million, the European Union Humanitarian Air Bridge operations focused on areas where humanitarian emergencies are the most difficult to access – in Africa as a priority, but also in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Flights supported Afghanistan, the African Union, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Nigeria, Peru, São Tomé and Príncipe, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen.
The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge is implemented in coordination with and in a complementary manner to the UN Common Services managed by the World Food Programme (WFP). The target is to make the best use of the logistical resources available.
Coordination of solidarity
The air bridge flights are fully funded by the European Union. They are operated in coordination with Member States, in a Team Europe approach, and also in consultation with the receiving country. The material carried on board belongs to humanitarian aid and civil society organisations.
Speaking about the initiative, Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič said: “The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge is helping humanitarian organisations continue their life-saving work, at a time when needs are at the risk of becoming more acute. Thanks to the in-built flexibility in the way it operates, the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge is able to react rapidly to needs and to support the delivery of aid to the most critical areas.”
The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge aims to cater for the needs of all humanitarian actors, big or small, NGOs or civil society organisations, bringing help to people in need. On the operational side, it is no small feat to coordinates all the logistical arrangements – from identifying the humanitarian cargo and staff waiting to be transported to any destination to chartering aircraft.
To ensure an inclusive and wide coverage of needs, the EU coordinates many of the operations with the Humanitarian Logistics Network (Réseau Logistique Humanitaire - RLH) that, in turn, identifies and consolidates aid organisations’ needs and supports the preparation and implementation of operations.
The EU coordinates with the Humanitarian Logistics Network that maps out the transport needs of more than 50 aid organisations. The RLH is made of 9 NGOs (ACTED, Action contre la faim, la Croix-Rouge française, Handicap International, Médecins du Monde, Oxfam Intermón, Plan International, Première Urgence Internationale, Solidarités International) and focuses on making the best use of logistical resources for the humanitarian sector. © European Union, 2020
According to the Humanitarian Logistics Network, the Humanitarian Air Bridge has been able to address the unprecedented situation created by this international health crisis: the shutdown of borders, the suspension of international flights, and the lockdown measures, that seriously impacted the distribution of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable groups over the past months.
The risk was to leave the sick, the elderly, the isolated, and disabled people, among many others, with no access to resources or basic care and services, and humanitarian teams in the field with no protection against the virus while supporting beneficiaries. The Network acted on its mission and rapidly coordinated and contributed to respond to the dramatic consequences of the pandemic on already vulnerable people.
Forming part of the EU’s Global Response to the coronavirus pandemic, the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flights are yet another way in which the EU has been able to rise to the new challenges that our world is facing. The effects of a pandemic on this scale can only be addressed in solidarity within and outside Europe.
ACF in the Central African Republic
Action Against Hunger (Action contre la faim – ACF) is one of the aid organisations to have sent material on board the EU Air Bridge flights to the Central African Republic.
The personal protection equipment amongst its cargo has been distributed to ACF staff and to health workers at the health facilities receiving ACF support. One of these facilities is the University Paediatric Hospital in Bangui (Complexe Hospitalier Universitaire Pédiatrique de Bangui - CHPUB) that treats children suffering from severe acute malnutrition with additional medical complications, the most serious form of malnutrition.
The medical supplies are helping to reduce the risks linked to coronavirus among staff and patients. ACF is supporting the CHPUB with EU development funding allocated through the Bêkou Trust Fund.
Through its cargo carried on board the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to the CAR, ACF has been able to provide personal protection equipment to the University Paediatric Hospital in Bangui that treats malnourished children. © Nabil Kasri/ACF CAR, 2020
ACTED in the DRC
ACTED’s teams in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) needed additional staff. The DRC has more than 5.5 million people displaced because of violence that has chased them away from their homes. They have lost everything and live in makeshift settlements, often densely populated and in poor conditions.
As ACTED explains, when there is a massive displacement of people, the coronavirus poses yet an even greater risk. “We are reinforcing our teams to be able to provide life-saving assistance to those who need it most, and to contribute to the general preparedness and prevention efforts against the coronavirus pandemic in this context of displacement of people,” explained Pascal Bernard, Director of Operations at ACTED.
8 additional ACTED aid workers travelled on board the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight to join their projects in the DRC, where the EU, through its humanitarian funding, is also supporting ACTED to help the most vulnerable displaced people.
In the DRC, ACTED is helping to provide displaced people with life-saving staple items for their survival. EU humanitarian funding is also supporting this assistance. © ACTED, 2020
World Health Organization (WHO) in São Tomé and Príncipe
In São Tomé and Príncipe, the Humanitarian Air Bridge transported 14 tons of medicines and material (including personal protective equipment and ventilators) for the WHO, as well as a team of 5 health experts. This material helped establish a WHO-equipped coronavirus diagnostics laboratory to step up the country’s testing capacity.
The flight also helped bring in ventilators, medicines, and other medical supplies and equipment to establish a dedicated coronavirus field hospital. It is composed of 50-100 beds in a football field in the capital, at the service of the entire population in São Tomé and Príncipe (approximately 200,000 people).
The team of 5 health professionals (including an emergency doctor, nurse and water sanitation engineer) helped establish a safe and sound system to manage coronavirus patients in the dedicated field hospital. They also train local medical staff to efficiently and effectively treat coronavirus cases.
Since the laboratory started, all coronavirus testing cases in the country go through it. Those in need of medical assistance have been treated in the field hospital that the EU flight helped in transporting.
A field hospital has been transported from Lisbon to São Tomé and Príncipe on board of the EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight. © WHO, São Tomé and Príncipe, 2020
UNHCR in Burkina Faso
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is sparing no effort to help and protect refugees and people forced to flee, committing to staying and delivering assistance amid the pandemic. In light of the critical humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso, compounded by the pandemic as well as the start of the rainy season, the need for additional aid workers to be on the ground became most urgent.
On 22 June 2020, the first EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight to Burkina Faso left from Brussels to Ouagadougou with humanitarian staff, including UNHCR staff and aid onboard. Following the declaration of an internal level 3 emergency earlier this year in Burkina Faso, UNHCR has been strengthening its capacity through additional staffing in the area of protection, shelter and information management. Their aim is to scale up its emergency response.
Maria Chiara Massetti, UNHCR Protection Officer on board, said: “Flights such as the one organised by the European Union are critical in ensuring that UNHCR can stay and deliver protection and assistance to those displaced in the country. The needs are huge and we must act now.”
EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight that had just landed in Ouagadougou on 22 June 2020. 2 flights were operated to Burkina Faso, carrying over 40 tonnes of humanitarian and medical supplies and 14 humanitarian workers. © M. Trigg/UNHCR, 2020
UNICEF in Afghanistan
The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge shipment to Afghanistan included 26 metric tonnes of vaccines, and vaccine-related supplies. These will help protect children from diseases such as polio, pneumonia, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, among others. This is critical in a country where only half of children are fully immunised and routine services have been disrupted by the pandemic.
"At UNICEF, our vision and mission are very clear: the survival and well-being of children is an imperative,” says Dr. Aboubacar Kampo, UNICEF Afghanistan Representative. “During this pandemic period, UNICEF is committed to ensure adequate vaccine supplies are available in the country, to support the continuation of routine immunisation for every child and woman, especially the most vulnerable.”
Arrival of UNICEF’s life-saving medical supplies for children in Afghanistan, thanks to an EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight. © UNICEF Afghanistan, 2020
NRC in Sudan
Humanitarian needs in Sudan are currently enormous and the effect of the coronavirus pandemic is compounding an already dire situation characterised by an economic crisis, food insecurity, malnutrition, conflict, displacement and natural hazards.
The country is also undergoing a historical moment as it transitions towards democracy and the need for support from the international community is more important than ever.
In February 2020, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) was welcomed back to Sudan after having been expelled in 2009, together with 13 other organisations.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, NRC’s mission start-up and delivery were heavily compromised. As part of the new restrictions, borders were closed and the arrival of additional humanitarian workers to scale up the response was stopped. Despite this, NRC was committed to stay and deliver.
The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge has been key to help NRC, allowing 5 of NRC’s international global specialists to land in Sudan on 24 June. Thanks to this, NRC has managed to strengthen its response in informal settlements in the outskirts of Khartoum. In this area, refugees, internally displaced and vulnerable host community members live under critical conditions, highly deteriorated by the rising socio-economic crisis and the lockdown.
NRC will soon deliver multipurpose cash assistance to the most vulnerable households to meet essential needs, including food and health assistance. In addition, NRC will soon launch a programme supported by EU humanitarian aid to ensure that over 11,000 children out of school can access primary education in safe learning environments, setting the foundation for a brighter future.
Janez Lenarčič, Commissioner for Crisis Management (left), and Jan Egeland, Secretary General of NRC (right), in Sudan, signing the contract for a project to provide quality education in a protective environment for children who lost out on schooling because of humanitarian crises. © European Union, 2020
Première Urgence Internationale in Yemen
The coronavirus pandemic came in Yemen as another scourge targeting the civilians, and has been increasing the humanitarian and sanitarian crisis as well as the needs for assistance.
“In light of the critical situation, and considering the slowdown of international shipments, we were lacking medical and nutritional supplies. We needed huge quantities of drugs to continue running our stabilisation centres and provide treatments for children under severe acute malnutrition”, Danielle Lustig explains, Première Urgence Internationale’s Head of Mission in Yemen.
On 23 July 2020, the first EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight to Yemen landed in Aden, loaded with 11 tonnes of nutritional supplies for Première Urgence Internationale’s activities. 3 other dispatches soon followed, at Sana’a airport, between 25 July and 6 August 2020, containing a total of 47 tonnes of drugs, medical equipment and nutrition supplies. These shipments will allow Première Urgence Internationale to provide direct support to 51,000 people across Yemen, including 16,000 children, and to continue running 2 stabilisation nutritional centres until the end of 2020.
Diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, Mohammed is quickly given water and Plumpy’Nut, a fortified peanut butter enriched with milk and vitamins. © European Union 2018 (photo by: Peter Biro)
EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to Beirut
In the 6 weeks following the massive explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, 3 humanitarian air bridge flights touched down in Lebanon’s capital. Together, the planes transported 54 tonnes of humanitarian and medical supplies, including firefighting equipment, medicines, ambulances and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
With 8 ambulances from the NGO Orienthelfer to be airlifted, the EU chartered an Antonov 124, one of the world’s largest cargo planes for the last consignment. “The problem with the pandemic is that it has strained the health system of the country,” said European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, who accompanied the flight from Munich, after landing in Beirut. “And with a catastrophic incident like the one in the Beirut port, the health system is now strained beyond limits. This is why we’re helping Lebanon overcome this period, with unconditional humanitarian assistance, directly benefiting the people who need it.”
The explosion, which left at least 190 people dead and thousands injured, came on top of a severe economic and financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees remain in the country, living in increasingly difficult conditions. In addition to the humanitarian air bridge, the EU also coordinated offers for assistance from 20 European countries through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism in the wake of the blast. Search and rescue, and medical teams were deployed and over 1,000 tonnes of emergency supplies reached Beirut.
Amongst the assistance transported by the Humanitarian Air Bridge flight to Beirut were 8 ambulances belonging to the NGO Orienthelfer to support the health system. © European Union, 2020
EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to the African Union
The EU has been at the forefront of the global fight against coronavirus. From day one, the European Union has fought the pandemic both at home and abroad.
In September and October 2020, the Humanitarian Air Bridge provided 1.4 million COVID-19 test kits to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), through the African Union. To mark the occasion, the EU’s High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell and the EU’s Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, travelled to Ethiopia and took part in the handover ceremony.
The kits, a donation by Germany, were distributed to 24 African Union Member States. This delivery is a concrete example of the strong partnership between the EU and the African Union.
The handover event of COVID-19 test kits to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, with the participation of, from left to right: John Nkengasong, Director of African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; Birgitte Markussen, Head of the Delegation of the EU to the African Union; Thomas Kwesi Quartey, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC); Stephan Auer, German Ambassador to the African Union; EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič; and EU HRVP, Josep Borrell Fontelles.
Main picture: Loading of the first EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flight, bound to the Central African Republic. © European Union, 2020