One year into the pandemic, COVID-19 has taken the lives of nearly 3 million people and continues to jeopardise the health and wellbeing of millions more. People uprooted by conflict and crisis are among those most at risk.

Nearly 90% of the world’s refugees live in lower-income nations that find it challenging to provide basic services, let alone stanch the spread of a highly contagious virus. That’s why the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and our partners have been helping to protect families and communities from the most devastating impacts of COVID-19 in more than 40 countries.

With support from our donors, IRC staff on the frontlines have adapted our health services for social distancing, expanded access to clean water, provided remote education to children, and offered cash relief and job opportunities to help families meet basic needs. In the coming months, we will play a vital role in training and supporting local health workers to help ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. No one is safe until everyone around the world is protected.  

Innovating all the way

Here are seven examples of how, through their ingenuity and dedication, IRC teams are helping to ensure the people we serve can survive the global pandemic and rebuild their lives.


Delivering telemedicine

Some 1.3 million Venezuelans affected by economic crisis have sought safety in Colombia, with more than 35,000 reaching official crossing points every day to seek work, buy food, and receive medical assistance.

The IRC moved our health services, including COVID-19 testing, closer to the border, and ramped up telemedicine to provide vital primary and reproductive care during the country’s pandemic lockdown.

Two women working on laptops
Staff at the IRC ́s Comprehensive Community Center in Cúcuta, Colombia provide lifesaving health services, including COVID-19 testing, near the Venezuelan border.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza/IRC

Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria

Strengthening families

Our partnership with Sesame Workshop, Ahlan Simsim, piloted WhatsApp and other digital tools to provide young children uprooted by the war in Syria with the support they need to learn at home, manage stress, and protect themselves from COVID-19.

Using multimedia content in local languages and dialects, families have been able to teach their children the alphabet, talk about emotions, and pass on the skills they need to heal and thrive.

Two children sitting down
Ayham, 5, and Reham, 3, have been living in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan since their family fled the war in Syria. Being part of the Ahlan Simsim program has made the children more confident, their mother says.
Photo: Ahmad Al-Jarery/IRC


Delivering cash relief

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Yemen after more than five years of conflict that has displaced over 3.6 million people and placed the country on the brink of famine.

The IRC stepped up our emergency cash support as disruptions related to the pandemic sent the cost of food and other essentials skyrocketing. While wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) to safely deliver cash relief, IRC staff also educated people about COVID-19 prevention.

Thabit and his son with an IRC mobile health worker in Yemen
The IRC provided support to Thabit Hassan Qaied, 35, and his family as COVID-19 spread through Yemen. “Most of my time at home is taking care of all the precautions like handwashing with soap in the right way,” he says.
Photo: Anas Mohammed/IRC

Democratic Republic of Congo

Fighting a double epidemic

In April 2020–one month after the outbreak of COVID-19 was deemed a global threat—a second outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus was declared in Congo. The country has spent decades in the grip of violent conflict, and 15.7 million people require urgent humanitarian aid.

IRC teams were able to draw on the expertise, resources and local networks they had developed while combating Ebola to fight misinformation about COVID-19, build trust, and protect communities at risk.

Benjamin talking to a group of seated young adults
During a virus outbreak, people can easily fall prey to misinformation and rumors. Benjamin, the head of an IRC-supported “children’s parliament” in Beni, eastern Congo, leads an Ebola awareness session in 2019.
Photo: Alexis Huguet/IRC


Finding creative solutions

Half of people the IRC surveyed in northern Cameroon—a country where violence has left approximately 6.2 million in need of aid—lack access to soap and clean water during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Among other creative solutions, we designed and built, using local materials, 50 public hand-washing stations that can be operated by a foot pedal.  People can now sanitize their hands without physically touching a water tap or soap dispensers.

Claudia celebrated with a traditional Thanksgiving meal this year.
Photo: Manar Marouf/IRC.


Teaching children to read remotely

School closures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 have had a dire impact on education in a country already finding it challenging to keep children in classrooms. Some 79% of children in Pakistan will not learn to read by age 10.

The IRC trained teachers through webinars and devised ways to ensure thousands of children could build their reading skills (in any of seven languages) at home, even without a computer or smartphone.


Supporting survivors of violence

Every year, more than 1 million women experience violence in Uganda. A nationwide coronavirus lockdown has left survivors confined at home with their abusers, often unable to seek help.

The IRC has adapted our programmes to deliver psychological, medical and legal support to survivors remotely. We’ve also bolstered community-based services and coached social workers to provide code words women can use to indicate it’s not safe for them to talk on the phone.

Jemimah Sadia talking to a woman while holding a bag of small cakes
South Sudanese refugee Jemimah Sadia, 54, founded Togoleta, a women’s activist group in Uganda that provides counseling to refugees to prevent violence and help women and girls recover from abuse.
Photo: Esther Mbabazi/IRC

Our impact at a glance

In 2020 the IRC: 

We also adapted our education, economic livelihoods, and women’s protection and empowerment programmes to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, including:  

The way forward

While the coming months are critical to saving lives and keeping refugee families afloat economically, we know that COVID-19 will continue to have long-lasting effects worldwide.

From training community health workers to deliver vaccines, to expanding our global digital information platform Signpost, to developing remotely-delivered education, job-training, and protection programmes, the IRC is already identifying and investing in the services the hardest-hit communities will need to get back on their feet.

Learn more about our COVID-19 response around the world.