International organisations’ COVID-19 response hindered by political and xenophobic attacks, limiting aid to vulnerable groups

International organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) face a storm of disinformation and blame surrounding their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. This includes xenophobic reactions from populations, but also political blame. The criticism is leading to obstacles for the organisations providing much-needed aid to vulnerable populations, particularly in areas of Africa, due to restricted funding and threats.


One of the more extreme cases of xenophobia is seen in South Sudan, where the virus “triggered a xenophobic backlash that has amped up tensions and restricted the movement of aid agencies” according to The New Humanitarian. Both the media and social media posts blame the UN for bringing the virus to the country and misinformation and conspiracy theories are still prevalent in COVID-19 discourse despite efforts of international organisations. The army has been deployed to surround and seal off UN-protected camps. The reaction was sparked by the fact that South Sudan’s first four confirmed COVID-19 cases were all UN staff members, although they had been in the country for 5 weeks and have thus likely contracted the virus there. The UN as well as other aid agencies have suspended all but essential movement for its staff. The lack of aid brings considerable health risks to the general population as the country has one of the weakest healthcare systems in the world. Six million people, half the population, already have a compromised immune system and are short of food; of the 1.7 million displaced people, 190.000 are sheltering in overcrowded UN camps for Internally Displaced People. Restricting the UN’s ability to provide healthcare endangers the general population, but especially the internally displaced and refugees. South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir has called upon its citizens to refrain from hate speech towards foreign service providers.

U.S response and the WHO

Another backlash against international organisations comes from US President Donald Trump, who announced he would cut funding to the WHO.  According to Trump, the WHO has caused “much death” by pushing “Chinese misinformation” and by fighting the US decision to limit travel from China; although Trump does not elaborate on what he means by that statement. Michael Merson, ex-WHO director of its AIDS program, advisor to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and professor of medicine at Duke and New York University said that he views “Trump’s remarks about the WHO as part of his attempt to deflect blame for his own handling of the worst pandemic our world has seen in a hundred years.” Director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank Thomas J. Bollyky argues that the WHO is “essential” to curbing COVID-19 and that stripping it of funds or penalizing it is counterproductive because  “the WHO has been urging control efforts for the better part of three months.”

Lack of Funding

Cutting down the financial support to the WHO comes at a time when international organisations are already struggling with insufficient funds to fight the virus. The WHO relies on member countries and charities for funding and amidst a global pandemic one of the biggest contributors ($553 million out of $6 billion in 2019) is threatening to pull out. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which also transports WHO supplies in Africa, only received 24% ($84 million) of the $350 million it required to respond. The UN Migration Agency (IOM) has revised its appeal to $499 million from the previous $116 million appeal and The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also reports it requires $2 billion to properly respond to COVID-19 around the globe.

More funding is needed for an effective global COVID-19 response, and according to health experts in the Lancet  it is vital that refugees and migrants are included in the response. According to the OCHA, refugees in Africa are particularly vulnerable because they lack access to the already scarce healthcare, food and shelter options. For example, WFP country director of Uganda, El-Khidir Daloum, told The Guardian that “WFP is faced with a significant funding shortfall for its refugees response,”  as a result food rations have been cut for 1.4 million refugees in Uganda.

The blame and misinformation that is directed at international organisations is thus leading to a less effective international response, which particularly hits vulnerable communities that rely on such a response.