WFP-chartered planes bring in supplies and equipment to help the humanitarian community respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Photo: ©WFP Bangladesh / Gemma Snowdon

While most of the world self-isolates at home and skies are emptier than they have been for decades, humanitarian flights transporting life-saving aid are revving up around Asia and the Pacific. 

Reaching people in war zones or natural disasters is never easy. With most flights grounded, borders closed and workers in quarantine, delivering supplies to families and communities in need in the Covid-19 era has become the greatest challenge the World Food Program (WFP) has faced in its nearly 60-year history.

Covid-19 may be our biggest test yet. But this is when WFP steps up. 

Connecting crisis response

On May 10, a WFP-chartered plane carrying Covid-19 medical supplies and aid workers left Kuala Lumpur. The destination: Yangon, Myanmar, where commercial international flights have been suspended since March. The connection was made possible with funding provided by the European Union and the government of Switzerland. The weekly air service will be utilized by the entire humanitarian and development community. 

On May 10, the first of a series of WFP-chartered planes arrived in Yangon from Kuala Lumpur, carrying Covid-19 medical supplies and aid workers. Photo: ©WFP Myanmar / Hkun Lat

Also from Kuala Lumpur, one of the few places in the region where international connections are still possible, WFP’s humanitarian flights are coming to Bangladesh. Two deliveries this month included equipment and materials for Covid-19 prevention and management in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. 

The humanitarian community in Afghanistan can now rotate personnel in and out of the country with flights connecting Kabul and Doha. Similar operations are planned for the Pacific Island countries, which are even more reliant on air transport for basic goods and services.

International flights that connect Kabul and Doha are now available for the humanitarian community working in Afghanistan. Photo: ©WFP Afghanistan / Philippe Kropf

Through a hubs-and-spokes system, medical cargo is transported from our logistics hubs in China and Malaysia to the Covid-19 frontlines in the region and also the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

In the coming days, we plan to connect more operations in other parts of the region to the logistics backbone. 

Globally, since January, WFP, on behalf of the World Health Organization and the entire humanitarian community, has dispatched supplies to 94 countries to help governments and health partners respond to Covid-19. These shipments include personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns, and ventilators, as well as logistics equipment.

Governments key

“We are only as strong as the weakest,” the United Nations secretary general once said. Antonio Guterres has asked all governments to grant permission for humanitarian flights to land until regular commercial flight services are restored.

With each flight, WFP and our partners will take all necessary precautions to avoid transmitting the virus. But without access, it will be a struggle to ensure that people everywhere have the medical supplies and equipment they need to face this pandemic. 

Many of the countries in the region lack adequate health-care facilities for their own people. To keep humanitarian workers safe and healthy – without burdening over-stretched medical services – we are asking some governments whose health-care systems have the capacity to allow aid personnel access to life-saving medical assistance if required. 

In just a few months, Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through societies and upended the livelihoods of people everywhere. Governments around the world are struggling to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic, racing against time to save the lives and livelihoods of their citizens. 

At a time like this, it’s natural to focus on issues closer to home. But as long as Covid-19 is ravaging any country, it is a threat to us all. 

We stand a far better chance to defeat the virus and restore livelihoods sooner rather than later by entrusting and leveraging one another’s strengths. 

John Aylieff

John Aylieff is World Food Program regional director for Asia and the Pacific.