Coronavirus, the Humanitarian Sector and the Media

March 20, 2020

On Wednesday 11th March 2020 the World Health Organisation declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, acknowledging that it is likely to spread to every country in the world. The full extent of Coronavirus and its impact on the humanitarian sector is not yet known but the outbreak is likely to have a significant impact on NGOs.

The situation with Coronavirus is changing daily, with the death toll increasing and governmental and NGO precautions adapting based on the evolving circumstances of coronavirus and its impact, as of 18th of March the details below are correct. 

What is Coronavirus?

According to the World Health Organisation, coronaviruses (CoV) are a family of viruses that can cause illnesses such as a common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-Cov). COVID-19 is a new strain of the virus which has previously not been identified in humans but has now, at the time of writing, spread to at least 118 countries and territories and killed more than 7,000 worldwide.

As it is a new disease, not much is known about its origins and how it is spread, other than that first cases were reported in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and have spread across the globe since. Aljazeera has created a timeline of how the virus has spread.

How are governments responding?

Italy has had the worst outbreak by far outside of China, resulting in a total shutdown. All schools, gyms, museums, restaurants, nightclubs, venues, shops (excluding food stores and pharmacies) and anywhere else people gather have been closed, and travel to and from the country restricted. Other countries are following suit, with the US suspending travel from Europe to the US and most countries have responded with strict travel restrictions and quarantine and self-isolation methods. Large events which attract a lot of people such as sporting events and music festivals like Coachella are being cancelled or postponed.

The UK government is now advising anyone who can should work from home and is urging all citizens to practice social distancing, limiting contact with other people as much as possible.

The UK government have also announced up to £150 million of UK aid funding in a recent budget to help mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the world’s most vulnerable countries.

How has this affected the sector?

As with every sector, the Coronavirus and its impact on the humanitarian sector has already been huge. Many NGOs such as CARE, Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services are issuing new travel restrictions for staff and developing prevention and response plans to better aid the worst impacted and most at-risk countries. The United Nations is undertaking risk assessments “to evaluate how critical proposed travel is in relation to the risk posed to the traveller.”

In the global north, banks are cutting interest rates and governments are offering loans and enabling quicker access to benefits to support the economy. However, in more vulnerable countries loans are not an attractive solution because of the longer-lasting economic damage they can have. This has resulted in a sector-wide push for more grants for local governments, service providers and NGOS to pay for more staff, treatment facilities, drugs, and protective equipment.

How are UK charities responding?

As the Coronavirus and its impact on the humanitarian sector is still unfolding, many different charities have offered specific advice based on the communities that they serve. The National Eczema Society has offered advice on handwashing techniques for people with skin conditions, Carers UK have issued recommendations for carers, and Asthma UK have provided specific advice for people with asthma.

The Fundraising Regulator has suggested “All charities should now be thinking about what they will do if their fundraising event needs to be cancelled or postponed.” Some charities are already cancelling events to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus, particularly if events include people who are more vulnerable to Covid-19 or require international travel. This includes Bond’s annual conference. The conference was due to take place on the 23rd and 24th of March 2020 and is the biggest international development event in Europe. Increasing concerns over the spread of coronavirus has led to the cancellation of the event.

On 12th March the Charity Commission issued guidelines for charities on how to respond to Coronavirus, which was heavily criticised for its tone and being unhelpful. The guidance has since been withdrawn.


As always in a crisis, it’s the poorer communities in the UK who are likely to be most affected. Food charities are preparing for an “unprecedented challenge” as foodbanks run low on supplies. The panic-buying, stock-up mentality amidst the Coronavirus fears has meant a drop in donations for some foodbanks, while other are struggling to buy supplies from supermarkets. The Sufra foodbank in London has launched a coronavirus emergency appeal, stating that “We are struggling to buy the food and toiletries we need to help homeless people and families experiencing hunger – many of the essential items we need are out of stock.”


Covid-19 does not discriminate and the spread of the virus is in no way linked to ethnicity, yet some communities are facing discrimination and racism because of the outbreak. Therefore, it is important to support these communities at this time. Stop Hate UK are providing a 24-hour reporting service for anyone experiencing or witnessing discrimination.

What is the general advice?

It is everyone’s responsibility to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to ensure high-risk groups such as the elderly and people with lower immunity and health conditions are better protected. The current advice is as follows:

  • Wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser – this is particularly important after using public transport
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then throw the tissue in a bin – if you do not have a tissue cough/sneeze into your sleeve rather than your hand
  • Disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces at home and at work such as keyboards, mice, phones & smartphones, door handles and desktops
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Work from home where possible
  • Avoid unnecessary travel

The media reaction

As the coronavirus  continues to make an impact at a global and local level, and as more people are self-isolating in an effort to promote social distancing, the media are a key actor in informing the ordinary person about what  the virus is, what to do and what the next steps are. It is a huge advantage to be able to access vast amounts of information quickly via a diverse number of platforms (TV news, social media, WhatsApp groups, etc.). However, there is also the ugly side of information overload, as people are exposed to news that is not only not helpful but in fact detrimental to their situations (and those of their communities, if they are possibly spreading the virus to others inadvertently).

 “Social media is both offering a window into our collective response to the coronavirus outbreak, as well as shaping our reaction in the first place — for good and for ill” (De La Garza)

The spread of ‘fake’ news

Many of us rely heavily on social media as a key information source in difficult times. As many countries initiate states of emergencies, they are also using social media to alert citizens to any updates and restrictions being enforced. Social media has become the ‘go to’ information provider for many people, with 330 million monthly active users on Twitter and 145 million daily users. Social media use worldwide is expected to reach 2.96 billion people in 2020, which makes these platforms prime targets for those wanting to spread fake news.

The prevalence of fake news or disinformation on social media has already prompted Twitter to issue a statement that it will remove any tweets that it considers to contravene its safety rules. The social networking site said “we will enforce this in close co-ordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content”.

As people increasingly seek information to dispel the fear of the unknown, many are being lured to information that claims to provide bogus cures or claims about a vaccine. In addition, much other disinformation relates to conspiracy theories about where the virus started and whether it was manufactured. Governments, scientists and charities are all working to counter these types of claims. For example, the WHO has a ‘myth-busing’ resource to counter fake claims and includes information such as: taking a hot bath does not prevent it; cold weather, snow, garlic and hairdryers cannot kill it; and vaccines against pneumonia do not protect against it.

Finding credible sources

As news media throw words like ‘lock-down’, ‘quarantine’, ‘cabin fever’ and other catchy but scary phrases around, it becomes more important to find sources of information that are credible, based on science, but also easy to understand. What becomes important during this time is to filter information and perhaps adopt a local and global strategy – use local community networks on social media to stay tuned to what is happening around you, and refer to reliable global sources to get the big picture. At the local level, Prof Jeff Hancock says community forums are useful, because they are “reflecting how society is thinking and reacting to the crisis…allowing society to sort of talk its way through what is an unprecedented kind of threat”. Finding community forums which are offering support to vulnerable populations and provide an outlet for volunteering are becoming more popular and are a good way to stay connected with those around you.

At the global level, looking for sources of information from large reliable organisations such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations, public health departments at universities, and verified national governments. Increasingly, “scientists and other public health experts are also using social media to more directly engage with the public or discuss emerging research”. One example is Prof Marc Lipsitch, who is Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and who tweets regularly about the work he does and those of his peers. Ordinary people can tap into the work of reputable scientists who are sharing important information by linking and following the people that scientists such as Prof Lipsitch follow. Rather than trying to find your own experts, use the resources from already-established experts to help point the way. Specht & Gimenez provide six points on how to be critical and ‘read like a scientist’ when finding information online.

“Disinformation experts say it’s more important than ever for those with accurate information to be sure they’re being heard” (De La Garza)

Scientists are increasingly playing their part to debunk fake news by making their experiences, their research and their findings available to the public via social media. TIME writes that

“social media – Twitter in particular – has been a significant tool for scientists who can counter misinformation with accuracies and research. The sharing of information and updates on Novel Coronavirus by members of the science and medial communities has grown organically, and many scientists, doctors and other experts have accumulated thousands of followers”.

What can humanitarian organisations be doing to counter misinformation?

Large international NGOs can be at the forefront of countering misinformation and fake news as the pandemic spreads globally. Often, these organisations are already accustomed to ensuring accurate information is available during humanitarian crises and other disasters, and can be using these skills to promote accurate and timely information during today’s worrying events. Some of the ways in which INGOs can be promoting reliable information include: a) tapping into networks, particularly those that work in the health sector; b) sharing information on the ground; c) circulating information from reliable sources through their own social media accounts.

“The prominence of fear as a theme in reports of the coronavirus suggests that much of the coverage of the outbreak is more a reflection of public fear than informative of what is actually happening in terms of the spread of the virus.” (Wahl-Jorgensen)

INGOs are well-equipped to collate information gathered at country level into global trends that provide a big picture view of what experiences on the ground are. They can also work more closely with the mainstream media to promote reliable information and shift the narrative we are currently seeing around fear, panic and negativity to one that promotes unity, humanity and solidarity in the face of uncertainty.

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Written by Romey Watters

Digital Marketing Officer

& Dr Vanessa Malila

Research and Development Officer