UNRWA operating month to month under COVID-19, as funding crisis persists

In January UNRWA launched a $1.4 billion appeal but to date has received just $586 million in pledges.

Palestinians wait to receive humanitarian supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Shati refugee camp in Gaza January 17, 2011. (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
Palestinians wait to receive humanitarian supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Shati refugee camp in Gaza January 17, 2011.
(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency has only enough funds to operate month by month as it struggles to service 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now we have funding to pay our 30,000 health care workers until the end of this month,” Elizabeth Campbell, UNRWA’s Washington-based director told reporters during a Zoom call on Tuesday.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, UNRWA launched an appeal and received $14 million to provide extra health services, Campbell explained. It plans to launch an additional appeal later this week.

But that support, and any additional assistance, could become superfluous because UNRWA’s overall budget crisis could make it impossible for the organization to continue to provide its core operations, Campbell said 

In January, UNRWA launched a $1.4 billion appeal, but to date has received only $586 million in pledges. UNRWA has received only $400m. of that pledge. 

At issue for UNRWA has been the loss of the annual $350m. in US pledges that were halted by the Trump Administration three years ago. Until that time the US had been the largest single donor to UNRWA. 

“We continue to reel form the loss of US funding,” Campbell said, adding that the loss of that financial support “has had a corrosive impact on our ability to respond [to COVID-19].”

As a result, she said, “We are operating on a month to month basis.

“Our biggest challenge right now is sustaining our operations,” Campbell said. “If we do not receive the requisite funding we need for our core budget to pay the health care workers to respond to the new threat [COVID-19], all the additional emergency funding we receive, will be superfluous.”

She charged that the US had politicized humanitarian assistance by halting the funding. At the time the US said it had cut the funds because the organization was flawed, inefficient and helped perpetuate a permanent class of Palestinian refugees.

During the Zoom conference, field directors from Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria spoke of their efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Matthias Schmale, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, said that Gaza had been mostly been spared, registering only 17 cases, all of which were in quarantine. According to the World Health Organization, 12 of those who were stricken in Gaza have already recovered.

“UNRWA has played a significant role in containing the virus,” Schmale said. Already in early March UNRWA closed its 276 schools in Gaza, sending 282,000 children home and “out of harm’s way,” in addition to the close to 9,000 staff, he said.

A triage system for respiratory issues was created at UNRWA’s 22 health centers that provide over a million consultations quarterly to the 1.4 million refugees it services there, Schmale explained. A system of phone consultations was created to ensure that people did not have to come to the health centers unnecessarily.

The food and medicine distribution system was changed, so that it was delivered to people’s homes. Some 1.1 million depend on UNRWA for food, he added.

Phone numbers, particularly of the school children, allowed UNRWA to provide Gaza residents with instructions on how to behave to contain the virus. So there was an opportunity to influence behavior, he said.

Gaza is one of the more overpopulated places on earth, “so we can really spread essential messaging on how to behave appropriately and this will be even more important if the virus were to be transmitted to the local communities. Because of the over crowdedness and the health sector that has collapsed in the public hospital, personal behavior would be more important for the maximum damage control,” Schmale said.

“The social economic impact of the crisis we had a 50% unemployment rate before the virus and economists are predicting it could rise to 70%.

People have lost jobs and we can see that the situation is getting tough. We are getting increasing demands to help people cope,” he said.

West Bank UNRWA director of operations Gwyn Lewis, said social workers were also in touch with Palestinians over the phone to deal with lock down issues, such as domestic violence. 

Sanitation workers have ensured hygiene in the 19 refugee camps. There are also food voucher programs, she said. Unemployment due to COVID-19, as well the Palestinian economic crisis, has created a crisis that has pushed Palestinians to emerge from lock down to open small shops and engage in other work. “People can not afford to stay at home,” she said.

New West Bank cases are from Palestinian workers traveling back from Israel, she said there is a particular concern with regard to the upcoming Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The level of testing in east Jerusalem for Palestinians has been less than elsewhere, she said. 

Violence and vandalism against Palestinians continues, Lewis said, including by Israeli security forces and extremist Israelis. COVID-19 has only exacerbated those situations, she added.

According to the WHO there have been 503 cases of COVID-19 in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, of which 91 have recovered and four have died.