Bishops of Durham and St Albans debate international response to Covid-19

On 18th May 2020 a virtual sitting of the House of Lords debated a motion from Baroness Sugg, “That the Virtual Proceedings do consider the international response to COVID-19.” The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, and the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:

20.04.30 Durham 2The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, thankfully, the virus appears to be spreading slowly in most African countries, with Lesotho declaring its first case only last week. However, the World Bank forecasts that Covid-19 could push 49 million people into extreme poverty. The economic impact on some poorer nations could be more detrimental than the health threat. The aid Her Majesty’s Government committed at the international pledging event will be vital for the poorest nations, but our international response must be sustainable, which requires trade, not simply aid. What actions have Her Majesty’s Government taken to ensure that good free trade agreements are made with poorer nations?

Global hunger may be the next pandemic, with the UN recently reporting that global food insecurity could double due to measures to combat coronavirus. For example, despite the Rwandan Government’s emergency relief measures during their country’s lockdown, the effects of the lockdown on access to food is becoming greater, leaving many Rwandans extremely hungry. How do HMG plan to support countries that face significant hunger?

The virus’s economic impact has been compounded in Rwanda by devastating floods that have destroyed essential crops and left many Rwandans displaced, forcing people into makeshift camps. What assessment have HMG made of how natural disasters have exacerbated the threats of coronavirus for some of the poorest nations?

Misinformation is detrimental when fighting a pandemic in poorer countries. Therefore, what do HMG make of Burundi’s decision to expel four World Health Organization representatives on 14 May? As churches are often best placed to communicate information due to their community embedment, what plans do HMG have to work with faith-based organisations to disseminate Covid-19 information?

Bishop Alan SmithThe Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, Covid-19 is no respecter of persons. It affects equally the villager in the Amazon and the Prime Minister of the UK. However, the effects of Covid-19 are not experienced equally. The poorest in our world are being hit hardest. Many Christians across the world are working together to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. For example, Christian Aid, the Anglican Community Fund and many other aid agencies have stepped up their charitable efforts in response to the pandemic.

Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that government initiatives link with the voluntary sector to co-ordinate our response? In places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the churches are running hospitals and public health information campaigns to confront the Ebola outbreak. Indeed, in war zones, where NGOs have had to withdraw their staff because it is too dangerous or where Governments are not functioning, it is often local church leaders who are able to run health education programmes and change behaviours. Will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that local community leaders in those places, including church leaders, are consulted and trained, as in some areas it is the most effective way to prevent further deaths?

Displaced people, such as Syrians in refugee camps and the Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh, are especially vulnerable. Without decisive action and medical aid, Covid-19 is likely to sweep through those camps rapidly. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House what is being done to provide emergency medical aid to the most vulnerable refugee communities?

The Minister responded to some of the points raised by the Bishop of Durham in a concluding remark at the end of the debate.

Baroness Sugg: The right reverend prelate the Bishop of Durham… spoke about the importance of international trade. This crisis highlights just how important it is to keep trade flowing and to keep supply chains open, so that we can all have the essential supplies that we need at this difficult time. Free trade and resilient supply chains through open markets will be crucial to the global economic recovery as the crisis passes. In the extraordinary meeting of G20 Trade Ministers on 30 March, the International Trade Secretary called for major world economies to work together to tackle the economic impact of coronavirus. In times of economic difficulty, it is more important than ever for countries to remain open to trade.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham… [also] spoke on the importance of food security. We are repurposing programmes in agriculture, social protection and humanitarian assistance to tackle the factors driving Covid-19-induced food insecurity. We are also a major funder of existing multilateral programmes in this area, such as the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme. We have committed £50 million to the World Food Programme’s recent urgent appeals and are learning the evidence from previous crises to make sure that we are sharing evidence on improved action. In all this, we continue to put the poorest and most marginalised at the heart of our programmes to address the underlying causes of chronic hunger.

The Minister also responded to some of the points raised by the Bishop of St Albans.

Baroness Sugg: On the issue of refugees, which was raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans… we are working hard to respond to refugee crises and forced displacement globally. Our existing programmes already provide access to public health information on clean water, sanitation and health services for displaced people and their host communities, and we are working closely with international partners to ensure that the global response addresses the needs and vulnerabilities of displaced populations. We are lobbying the UN to ensure that they are included in the global humanitarian response plan, and that their rights are protected. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, rightly highlighted the importance of access to such people. We are working hard to ensure that those delivering these essential services get the access they need. We are very concerned to see the recent reports of cases in Cox’s Bazar, among the Rohingya people. We are working closely to do all we can in such challenging circumstances to ensure that we can contain the spread of the disease.


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