Shortage of Masks & Protective Gear Could Freeze Life-saving Relief Efforts, Warns Médecins Sans Frontières

Switzerland, COVID-19 patients in Intensive care unit of HUG. MSF nurse Kathrine Zimmermann supports the intensive care unit of the Geneva University Hospitals for people with COVID-19. She is standing in the dressing room with her colleagues for the night shift. April 14, 2020. ©Nora Teylouni / MSF.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is likely to run out of face masks and other personal protective equipment for field workers and the communities that they serve within the next three weeks, due to the COVID-19 related surge in global demand, the Organization warned Wednesday. And that is putting at risk the continued operation of some of MSF’s critical programmes.

The international, Geneva-based organization that has some  50 000 staff working in 65 countries, called for a rapid scale-up of in the production of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and for UN, European Union and national policymakers to insure more equitable distribution to millions of vulnerable people worldwide.

“If we cannot provide proper protective equipment, this will lead to very difficult choices”, warned Kenneth Lavalle, Deputy Director of Operations. He said that MSF could even be forced to halt, or reduce the scope, of some of their activities.

“We still have global stocks for three to four weeks maximum”, Lavalle added, saying that MSF would need 26 million masks over the coming six months.

The shortage is both hampering the organization’s work to contain the spread of COVID-19, but also MSF’s ability to maintain other essential medical services, such as surgery, vaccination campaigns, and treatment of measles, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, said an MSF statement that accompanied the press event.

“The shortages will also impact communities where other preventative measures like confinement, physical distancing and proper sanitation are just not possible,” the statement added. “People living in camps, slums or war zones are more likely to need masks, but currently less likely to get them. The global distribution of both PPE still follows a competitive market system that de-prioritizes middle- and low-income countries.”

Indirectly, the lack of PPE – impeding a wide range of relief operations - could also contribute to an uptick in food insecurity and malnutrition, impacting already difficult economic situations that refugees and internally displaced people often face.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) , the MSF program for victims of sexual violence are already on standby.

“We had to prioritize,” said Trish Newport, of Geneva’s Emergency Cell, regretfully. In Myanmar, MSF also had to put on hold two projects. And in Nigeria, MSF might have to consider managing some of their projects remotely.

Since the start of the pandemic, MSF field staff have already been working in an even more challenging environment, facing restrictions of movement, mandatory quarantines and long work days.

With the pandemic, MSF is also running operations in high-income countries like France or Italy, an unprecedented situation.

Lavalle said it has also been “a struggle to navigate the market to secure quality material at a fair price.” “The country which can pay the most will get the supply to the absolute detriment of other countries with extremely vulnerable populations,” he noted.

“If we cannot provide care safely, we will see an increase in mortality”, warned Newport. She warned that  outbreaks of other diseases could also be expected in the next three to nine months. “We will have a limited capacity to respond to emergencies and outbreaks such as measles in Congo and Chad, cholera in DRC and it will be difficult to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak without PPE.

“There is ongoing cholera, Ebola and measles outbreaks and it is the malaria season coming and the number of deaths will increase. Without access of PPE to protect our staff and keep our patients safe it will be impossible to respond to emergencies”, she said.

If the virus was to hit huge refugee camps like the ones in Dadaab, Kenya, where some 80 000 people are sheltering without access to any PPE material at all, the consequences would be “absolutely disastrous” for the staff and the communities, said Lavalle. “In the conditions they live in and the proximity with one shelter next to another, I have no idea how they will be able to respond.”

Experience has demonstrated that the use of masks and other protective equipment is one of the main ways that further COVID-19 disease transmission can be reduced, when home isolation of mild cases is not possible and fragile health systems cannot hospitalize all the sick.