Coronavirus: Red Cross warns of impact on Middle East's most vulnerable

Organisation calls for international community to help support livelihoods and food security

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More than $1.25 billion is needed to help millions of the most vulnerable people across the Middle East whose incomes and survival have been endangered by the coronavirus pandemic, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday.

Millions of people already had little or no access to health care, food, water and electricity and their situation will get worse unless the international community responds urgently to protect their livelihoods and food security, the ICRC said.

"Being able to earn a living and provide for your family is a matter of life and death. It's vitally important that helping people do so is part of the coronavirus response," the ICRC's Near and Middle East Director Fabrizio Carboni told The National.

"We're hearing from people who had put everything into starting or rebuilding their business only to see it fail during periods of lockdown and curfew," Mr Carboni said.
In Syria, where a civil war is in its 10th year, the impact of coronavirus has created hundreds of thousands of newly vulnerable people. The number of people considered food insecure has risen to just over 9 million - an increase of 20 per cent from a year ago.

“In Syria, a bag of flour has increased in price by 300 per cent, for example, in the north-east. The price of bread and other staples is soaring – in some places it has doubled in two weeks,” Mr Carboni said.

"More people are being pushed into poverty and hunger, in places where they are already dealing with the severe consequences of the almost decade-long conflict,” he said.

Mr Carboni said the ICRC would increase its support for Syrians, particularly the most vulnerable such as the elderly and people with disabilities.

“Long-term, we will be beefing up our agricultural and livelihood support programmes substantially over the coming months: up to 275,000 people will get help with seeds, fertilisers and irrigation kits,” he said.

In a recent survey conducted by ICRC in Iraq, 98 per cent of respondents said that the pandemic had affected their business. Of the 781 people surveyed, about 50 per cent cited a lack of supplies or access to markets, reduction in customers and sales and temporary closure or reduction of working hours.

In Gaza, restrictions introduced to contain the spread of the virus affected owners of restaurants and small shops, as well as livestock farmers.

“The ICRC will provide a cash grant for 120 farmers to support them by purchasing grains, fodder, clean water for their businesses, working with the Ministry of Agriculture,” the group said.

In Lebanon, the group has already supported more than 17,700 people with cash or other assistance this year. A lockdown to contain the coronavirus affected an economy that was already in crisis.

“Food and non-food prices have dramatically increased over the past eight months, with some goods rising by more than 90 per cent,” ICRC said.

In Jordan, the ICRC is providing emergency cash support for Syrian refugees who had started businesses but have now lost most of their income.