A new analysis from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) finds that COVID-19 cases and deaths have increased significantly across many conflict and crisis-affected countries over the past month. Kenya, Venezuela, Yemen, Ethiopia, and northeast Syria saw average daily case increases of 322%, 91%, 379%, 289%, and 529% respectively between early and late March.

The spread of more contagious and more deadly COVID-19 variants is among the most plausible factors for the majority of increases in these countries, where health systems remain in need of urgent support. In both Yemen and Syria, more than half of health facilities are closed and years of brutal war have crippled the ability of health systems to provide basic life-saving health services, let alone combat new variants. In Ethiopia, little is known about the virus’ spread in the Tigray region, where armed conflict has been ongoing since November 2020. Recent reports estimate that 71% of health centres and hospitals in the region have been either partially or fully damaged, leading to significant disruptions for all health services.

A “fog of war” - namely ongoing conflict and insecurity - has also created an inability to establish the full extent of cases, with limited testing and access to COVID-related data in places like Yemen (with only 441 tests per million), Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Niger, and South Sudan.

At the same time, many of these countries – like South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria — are facing severe food insecurity – exacerbated by the pandemic and ongoing conflicts. Crisis-level food prices are being seen throughout impacted countries — as high as a 230% increase in Syria and a 150-200% increase in Sudan in the last year, leaving many countries facing multiple emergencies.

These increases come as COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up across many wealthy countries, with sizable portions of populations already vaccinated in the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and more. But, vaccines are barely reaching conflict-affected areas - with less than 5% of the COVAX Facility’s vaccine supply headed to the world’s worst conflicts by June - only increasing the chance of more variants developing and spreading where the virus is not adequately under control.

Additionally, not enough humanitarian assistance is reaching aid organizations at the front lines of the response fast enough. The global COVID-19 humanitarian appeal is only 40% funded and just 20% of funding has gone directly to international, national, and local NGOs.

David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said:

Ending this unprecedented pandemic requires a committed, global focus. As new COVID-19 variants emerge globally and imperil current vaccination plans, crisis-affected countries are yet again the world’s most vulnerable. With health systems decimated and disrupted by war, growing hunger and vaccines barely visible on the horizon, millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk. 

According to COVAX estimates, at least $2 billion is needed to deliver vaccines to only the first 20% of populations in 92 low-income countries. Ensuring this pandemic ends also means strengthening health systems and ensuring health workers - 70% of which are women- have the resources to deliver doses to the last mile. We also need new models of aid delivery to ensure resources get to the front lines quickly and reach people in places where systems are failing or nonexistent.

Insofar as the US, UK and EU have purchased enough vaccine doses to inoculate their entire populations several times over, we are also calling on them to share their excess vaccine doses with poor and conflict-affected countries. We have specifically called on the Biden Administration to share 235 million excess doses immediately with the COVAX Facility. This World Health Day calls for bold multilateral action: commit additional and significant resources to ensure vaccines can be safely distributed among the world’s most vulnerable, and share millions of excess vaccine doses to ensure COVID-19 ends everywhere and anywhere, fast.