This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
An unprecedented crisis
The scale and extent of the Ukraine crisis have been unprecedented, impacting an estimated 18 million people within its borders and across the region. Yet in a remarkable demonstration of solidarity, it has also mobilised a significant response from The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) worldwide network following the launch of its Ukraine and impacted countries crisis Emergency Appeal. By activating the IFRC surge mechanism—which co-ordinates Rapid Response personnel, Emergency Response Units and Heads of Emergency Operations during times of crisis and disaster—267 IFRC Secretariat staff and volunteers have been deployed in Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia and Moldova.
They are supporting the area’s National Societies, which complement local disaster risk management authorities and other humanitarian actors in their respective countries. Often the first to respond, they have access to areas where other organisations do not as well as detailed knowledge and understanding of contexts on the ground. The National Societies have so far reached over 4.5 million people, distributing over USD 17 million and 1,664 metric tons worth of goods to people in need as part of the Federation-wide response since the beginning of the crisis.
With 300 health facilities destroyed, half the country’s pharmacies closed down and hundreds of thousands living without access to basic needs like water, food and utilities, Ukraine’s health needs are vast.
Planning for now, preparing for later
The IFRC’s Health and Care Response Plan aims to provide direct aid and quality health and care for those most at risk and in need as quickly as possible, ensuring efficient crisis response and recovery. This framework helps co-ordinate direct service provision, such as first aid, fixed clinics and mobile health teams, as well as healthcare training; support health authorities to enable inclusive health service access, including continuity of care, vaccine programmes and public health messaging; and provide mental health and psychosocial support. Beyond the immediate crisis, the Response Plan strengthens the health competencies within National Societies by recruiting and training volunteers, and engaging actively with communities to identify needs, health risks and solutions.
Helping those on the move
Many of those impacted in Ukraine are fleeing for their lives: since the conflict’s start, over 6.3 million refugees have been recorded across Europe; more than 6.64 million people are internally displaced; and around 2.5 million have impermanently returned. Though needs are changing daily, the IFRC’s exclusive access allows it to deliver humanitarian assistance to migrants and displaced people at scale, through partnerships with 36 active National Societies. With 371 Humanitarian Service Points set up along migration routes to provide access to essential services that might otherwise be inaccessible, the IFRC has achieved much in their endeavor to provide on-the-ground humanitarian support, protect human life and prevent and mitigate human suffering during the armed conflict.
The battles on the ground and in the mind
With 300 health facilities destroyed, half the country’s pharmacies closed down and hundreds of thousands living without access to basic needs like water, food and utilities, Ukraine’s health needs are vast. Chronic illnesses remain a concern for people who have fled their homes and been unable to receive regular treatment. To help alleviate the immense pressure on Ukraine and its neighbours’ healthcare systems—already under strain because of the COVID-19 pandemic—National Societies are operating multiple healthcare facilities including clinics at borders, mobile health teams in Ukraine and first aid posts.
Monetary assistance has been key for this response, with over 214,000 people receiving multi-purpose emergency cash relief. Along with IFRC Movement partners, the Ukraine Red Cross Society provides emergency health services and supplies to internally displaced people and public health authorities. It also plans to significantly scale up its Cash and Voucher Assistance response to help cover health costs, medical insurance and certain treatments, having already assisted over 2 million people.
Trauma caused by war is not only severe physically. Those affected—and especially children—will need immediate and long-term mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) to cope with loss and other conflict-related stressors; providing these services and training has thus become an IFRC Movement focus. With over 11,000 people trained and almost 330,00 people treated, the IFRC is working with National Societies to increase their ability to provide MHPSS. In co-ordination with the Danish Red Cross, a European Union-funded project supporting 300,000 people in Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia will offer mental health support through various platforms, including online and via telephone in multiple languages, to help reach more people. The International Committee of the Red Cross is also working with the Ukraine Red Cross Society and other National Societies in the region to develop similar Help the Helpers programmes.
Stopping disease, keeping dignity
An estimated 13 million lack access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) due to shell-damaged water treatment facilities, pipelines and pumps. To reduce the risk of water-related diseases and preserve the dignity of vulnerable populations, IFRC Movement efforts work to provide these populations with comprehensive WASH support, focusing on hygiene and health promotion activities. To this end, IFRC surge teams are conducting WASH assessments in Ukraine and impacted countries through field visits to humanitarian service points, reception centres, longer-term accommodation centres and host communities. IFRC and various Red Cross branches are distributing hygiene items and kits to respond to rising needs, and some countries are considering cash vouchers for hygiene items.
A holistic response
Across the IFRC’s entire crisis response, special attention is given to Protection, Gender and Inclusion (PGI). The demographics profile of those impacted—particularly for women and children—as well as the nature of conflicts exacerbate risks of trafficking, exploitative labour, family separation, and sexual exploitation and abuse. Other risks include barriers to accessing services, particularly for identified refugee groups (stateless peoples, third-country nationals and groups such as Roma, persons with disabilities and LGBTIQA+) due to less protective legal frameworks and discriminatory practices. The PGI operational strategy focuses on mainstreaming across programmes and supporting training in close contact with National Society and IFRC teams, as well as collaborating with protection working groups to ensure a holistic and informed response.