Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration COVID-19

Adaptations of pandemic proportions: Reflections one year later

Written by Chase Bryer, 2020 MSW practicum student at the Center for Human Rights, Gender & Migration; PhD candidate in Behavioral and Social Health Sciences, Brown University (beginning Fall 2021)

As parts of the world begin to open up and COVID-19 vaccination rates increase, service providers are considering how to once again adapt their service delivery models, both in the U.S. and around the globe. Service providers adapted with tremendous creativity this past year, as social distancing protocols forced many in-person services to adopt remote strategies such as virtual clinics. Service agencies that assist the most vulnerable persons faced particular challenges, and may continue to do so, especially in communities and countries with low vaccination rates or limited access to vaccines.

Chase Bryer

Our student team at the Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration has explored some of the innovative responses taken by service providers who work with immigrants and refugees, survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), and individuals receiving assistance in humanitarian settings. From low tech signal alerts in humanitarian settings to emergency response funds for immigrants and refugees, our findings suggest that strategic, comprehensive, and creative service delivery mechanisms have been key during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remembering some of these most effective strategies can help us reflect on which practices providers may want to continue using, even as in-person services begin to reappear.

Immigrant and refugee service providers in particular adapted their service delivery models to address the limitations of protection and the disproportionate health impacts among immigrant and refugee communities, while also contending with the ever-changing Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance and protocols. According to a Center for Law and Social Policy report, challenges for undocumented immigrants intensified because of limited access to federal relief funds, language barriers, and inadequate trauma-informed care.

Many social service organizations acknowledged the shifting service needs of refugee and immigrant communities and created remote relief to meet their most pressing needs. For example, the Immigrant Service Provider Network (ISPN) created the Immigrant Family Emergency Response Fund, which responds to the disproportionate economic impact on St. Louis’ immigrant community. For flexible disbursement of these funds, ISPN enabled recipients to receive a check via mail or cash delivery. The fund recently reopened in early June 2021, reflecting the fact that immigrant families in St. Louis are still contending with the devastating economic fallout of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also led to alarming increases in gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls in the U.S. and across the globe. In their fourth research roundup on Violence Against Women and Children During COVID-19, authors Bourgault, Peterman, and O’Donnell report that increases in GBV during the pandemic have been caused by lost income and employment, social pressures, and restricted movement resulting from social isolation procedures. As many survivors faced stay-at-home orders (with their abusers), service providers were tasked with finding the best way of delivering services.

A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report highlights alternative methods for assisting GBV survivors who have no phone or limited digital access. The report cites examples of subtle protective measures including low-tech signal alerts like the colored cloth included in GBV survivor dignity kits. These kits also include personal care items, a flashlight and other essential items to support daily living. Lessons for remote delivery of GBV services were also taken from pre-pandemic experiences, such as the International Rescue Committee’s Guidelines for Mobile and Remote Gender-based Violence Service Delivery.

Creative national responses to the heightened dangers for GBV survivors during COVID-19 emerged in Spain in particular, which created a national emergency response operation. According to an April 2020 International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) report, the operation increased services including emergency centers, safe temporary housing for survivors, a national information hotline,  an emergency alert with geolocation – which can be accessed  by state security forces – and an instant chat-messaging system for mental health first aid and assistance. The “Mask-19” campaign also gained widespread attention across Spain. Survivors of GBV can initiate an emergency protection alert protocol by saying “Mask-19” to employees in pharmacies. In the U.S., the National Domestic Violence Hotline developed similar strategies during COVID-19 such as online survivor chats or texting.

Humanitarian organizations also swiftly adapted services in a variety of ways. For instance, Purdue’s College of Engineering created a centralized, easy-to-use platform for tracking inventory and distribution of critical supplies during the pandemic such as PPE. Throughout the pandemic, United Nations Women also used grassroots remote cash-disbursement service, which ensured cash continued to reach hundreds of refugee women.

In summary, there is not a “one size fits all” service provision and adaptation model during an unprecedented pandemic like COVID-19. This is particularly true for organizations working with diverse groups of immigrants and refugees, GBV survivors, and individuals in humanitarian settings across the globe. As a result, it is important for service providers to remain creative, flexible, and sensitive to the collective needs of those communities most impacted. Even with the daily threat of the COVID-19 pandemic receding in some parts of the globe, this last lesson remains as salient as ever when considering how providers will need to adapt next.