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The UN has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The UN has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.  (AFP or licensors)

UN salutes aid workers on the frontlines during pandemic

On World Humanitarian Day, August 19, the United Nations remembers humanitarian workers killed and injured in the course of their work. It honours all aid and health workers who, despite the odds, continue to provide life-saving support and protection to people most in need.

By Robin Gomes

On World Humanitarian Day, top UN officials honoured workers who overcome “huge challenges” to save and improve the lives of millions of women, men and children, hit hard by crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a message for the annual day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged everyone to applaud and support the humanitarians, health workers and first responders who are working selflessly amid unprecedented need. 

Unsung real-life heroes

“These real-life heroes,” he said, “are doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times to help women, men and children whose lives are upended by crises.”

World Humanitarian Day was established by the UN in 2009. It commemorates the killing of 22 UN staff in the bomb attack on August 19, 2003, on a hotel in Baghdad, Iraq.  Among them was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was appointed the Special Representative the UN Secretary-General to Iraq.

Guterres said that humanitarian workers are responding to the global crisis of COVID-19 and to the massive increase in humanitarian needs from the fallout of the pandemic.  Loss of jobs, education, food, water and safety is pushing millions more to the brink.

He noted that this year the world body particularly celebrates humanitarian workers, who are often in need themselves.  They are refugees who help out host countries, local health workers who care for the sick and vaccinate children and humanitarians who negotiate access in areas of conflict to bring food, water and medicine to the needy.

The unsung heroes of the pandemic response, he said, “all too often risk their own lives to save the lives of others.”

‘The first to respond and the last to leave’

In a separate message, the President of the UN General Assembly echoed the sentiments of Guterres and paid tribute to the “real-world heroes”.  “They are ‘the first to respond and the last to leave’, accepting the risks of being threatened, injured, kidnapped and killed,” said Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria.  

He denounced violence against aid workers and the deterioration of humanitarian law. However, despite the largest-ever funding shortfall, humanitarian workers in 2020 have contended with Covid-19 and a massive surge in humanitarian needs in 63 countries. 

Funding work, ensuring safety

Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), also paid homage to aid workers saying the best way to appreciate them is by funding their efforts and ensuring their safety.

According to Aid Worker Security Database, major attacks against relief workers in 2019 surpassed all previous years on record.  A total of 483 relief workers were attacked, 125 killed, 234 wounded and 124 kidnapped in 277 separate incidents.  This was an 18 per cent increase in the number of victims compared to 2018.

19 August 2020, 16:45