UNICEF's Strategy for Fighting Coronavirus in Crowded Places

March 25, 2020

As the all-hands-on-deck humanitarian response to the global pandemic kicks into high gear, UNICEF is doing what it does best: reaching high-risk populations — refugees, displaced families, impoverished families living in densely populated areas of developing countries — with critical supplies and support. A look at how UNICEF is working to keep the most vulnerable kids and families safe and healthy in places where social distancing isn't an option. And why doing so helps everybody.


The guidance is clear: the best way to stay safe and prevent the spread of coronavirus is to wash your hands and stay six feet away from the next person.

But what if you live in a refugee camp? What if you're one of hundreds of thousands of displaced families from Syria sheltering roadside or in abandoned buildings in the middle of winter, huddling with your neighbors to avoid freezing to death?

Displaced families have little means for protecting themselves against infectious disease. To fight the coronavirus, UNICEF and partners are focusing on reaching the most vulnerable populations with supplies and support — the most effective way to combat the global pandemic, officials say. © UNICEF/2020/Almohibany

And what about the urban poor? In developing countries all around the world, there are millions of impoverished families living in densely populated slums, communities where personal space doesn't exist and where households share water taps and latrines, if they have them at all. 

The challenge of stopping the spread of disease in refugee camps, urban slums and other densely populated areas 

In these contexts, the information, supplies and support needed to enable best hygiene practices become that much more critical. 

Stopping the spread of infectious disease in humanitarian settings is UNICEF's specialty — a top priority for every emergency UNICEF response, a key objective of UNICEF's water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs.

Rohingya refugee children gathered at a UNICEF-supported learning center inside the Balukhali Camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. On March 25, UN officials announced plans for an interagency humanitarian response to the coronavirus pandemic, emphasizing the need for joint action to help crisis areas contain the virus. © UNICEF/UNI255737/Chak

As the global response to the current pandemic kicks into high gear, UNICEF is ramping up its WASH efforts in all regions; working with partners to improve access to safe water and hygiene supplies, installing handwashing stations and launching handwashing campaigns while also providing critical medical and personal protective equipment (masks, gowns, goggles and gloves) to frontline health workers.

Strengthening local health systems so the sick can get care and other essential services can continue

UNICEF is also working closely with the World Health Organization and country health ministries to strengthen the ability of local health systems to care for the sick and continue providing other essential health services. These and other efforts are part of a broader interagency response expected to cost $2 billion over the next nine months

In issuing an urgent appeal for support for this plan on Wednesday, the United Nations' humanitarian chief warned that failing to help vulnerable countries fight the coronavirus now could place millions at risk and leave the virus free to circle back around the globe.

“Countries battling the pandemic at home are rightly prioritizing people living in their own communities," said Mark Lowcock, the UN under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief. "But the hard truth is they will be failing to protect their own people if they do not act now to help the poorest countries protect themselves." 

Children line up for fruit juice at a UNICEF-supported center for refugees in Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, where safe water and sanitation and facilities to support best hygiene practices are sorely lacking. © UNICEF/UNI312590/Romenzi

UNICEF assistance efforts in Jordan, for example — a country that has taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees over the years — include helping health facilities procure ventilators and other medical supplies; ensuring a continuous supply of safe water to Za'atari and other refugee camps; and providing education support for out-of-school children, among a host of other services. UNICEF Jordan aims to reach over 3 million people with hygiene information disseminated through schools, mosques, primary health care centers, a UNICEF helpline and the U-report mobile platform.

For refugee children and families stuck in overcrowded settlements on the Greek Islands — where there is no access to adequate water or sanitation — UNICEF is distributing hygiene kits (hand sanitizer, soap, disinfecting wipes), sharing information about disease prevention and setting up tents for health checks, among other activities.

UNICEF is preparing response plans for dozens of affected countries, each focusing on:

  • reaching vulnerable people with health information on how to protect themselves and their children from infection
  • building the capacity of health facilities and their staffs to respond to outbreaks through trainings and the mass distribution of supplies
  • providing handwashing and hygiene supplies to schools, health centers, childcare facilities and other child-focused locations to stop the spread of the virus 
  • helping to mitigate the impact of school closures by supporting remote learning and providing psychosocial support services
  • ensuring that nutrition and immunization services continue for those in need

A girl washes her hands at a UNICEF-supported school in Faizabad, Badakhshan, a northern province of Afghanistan. UNICEF estimates that 3 out of 10 people — some 2.1 billion people worldwide — lack access to safe, readily available water at home, and 6 in 10, or 4.5 billion, live in homes lacking safely managed sanitation. Improving access to safe water, proper sanitation and supplies to enable best hygiene practices are critical components of UNICEF's response to the global coronavirus pandemic. © UNICEF/UN0339412/Dejongh

UNICEF is also providing technical guidance to authorities to help strengthen protection measures for children during the pandemic — kids who are at a higher risk of neglect, exploitation and abuse.

Now more than ever, we count on our donors to continue supporting our mission for those with nothing and no one – despite these difficult times,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said.

Help UNICEF be there for vulnerable children around the world during the coronavirus global public health emergency. Your support is urgently needed.


Top photo: At last count there were more than 7,100 displaced children sheltering in the Al-Hol camp annex in northeast Syria. Fighting the novel coronavirus — or any infectious disease — is particularly challenging in densely populated camps and urban areas, where social distancing is nearly impossible and families lack what they need to regularly wash hands and take other precautions. UNICEF's response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes ramping up water, sanitation and hygiene services and support to the most vulnerable communities in developing countries worldwide. © UNICEF/UNI310443/Romenzi