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Life-Saving Links

As part of its swath of destruction, COVID-19 will also impact the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Health officials in the Jumla District in Nepal collect test swabs from people in quarantine as part of a mass contact-tracing effort by the government, with monitoring and technical support from UNICEF and other partners.
Photo Credit: UNICEF Nepal/2020

Carlson School of Management Assistant Professor Karthik Natarajan specializes in supply chain issues, especially as they affect humanitarian aid.

While the World Health Organization and others have been warning about the possibility of an airborne pandemic for years, Natarajan says most countries haven’t developed plans for how to deal with one.

“We’ve had pandemics before that impacted supply chains,” says Natarajan, referring to both the SARS outbreak in 2002-2004 and the spread of H1N1 novel influenza in 2009. “The difference is that today global supply chains are so interconnected.”

Natarajan began working in supply chain management as an undergraduate student at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in India. “Supply chains span everything from raw materials to making your products and services and getting them on a cargo container, putting them on a ship, bringing them into the country, clearing customs, loading them onto a truck, delivering them to local stores, and then having [customers] go to those stores to buy them,” he says. “There is no economy without supply chains. That’s what fascinates me.”

Natarajan says a future casualty of COVID-19’s supply chain disruption may be that vulnerable people in developing nations won’t receive the humanitarian supplies they need to stay alive.

As just one example, UNICEF is the largest procurer of vaccines for children in the world. In 2019 alone, the nongovernmental organization provided an estimated 2.43 billion doses to reach up to 45 percent of the world’s children under the age of five. However, up to 40 percent of these vaccines are shipped using commercial airlines, which means that vaccination deliveries have been disrupted due to countries closing their borders and airlines cancelling flights. Several countries also have refused to accept shipments from countries where there are COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Vaccines happen on a schedule in order for a child to get the maximum protection,” explains Darla Silva, vice president of global programs and humanitarian response at UNICEF USA. “Any disruption along the way can cause a ripple effect.” She notes that UNICEF continues to work with the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and thousands of global suppliers to find alternative ways to transport the vaccines.

UNICEF also reports other supply chains have been disrupted due to COVID-19, which has meant shortages of everything from malaria medications to hand sanitizer to educational supplies.

Natarajan says in addition to all the supply chain factors that are at play in for-profit businesses, humanitarian initiatives have to factor in variabilities with government funding and charitable donations. Any uncertainties in funding, whether it’s the amount of the donation or the timing, impact an organization’s ability to serve people. A delay in funding can mean shipping a life-saving drug or product via airplane instead of on a ship, which dramatically increases the cost of that product. “So for the same $100,000, instead of feeding 10,000 kids, you might only be able to feed 5,000,” he says.

Lane Bunkers (B.A. ’85) is based in Nairobi, where he serves as Kenya’s representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Because a large portion of the work CRS does is humanitarian relief, the nonprofit manages an elaborate supply chain. With COVID-19, his office in Kenya has been working to procure test kits, PPEs, and hand sanitizing stations. “But as the crisis unfolds, we will most likely see the more traditional humanitarian needs increase as vulnerable populations will be most affected economically as the country shuts down.”

Bunkers says that CRS has already reconfigured its budget for 2020 and 2021 to take into account a decline in donations and the fact that CRS’s endowment is invested in the stock market.

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