MSF COVID-19 Crisis Update 2nd Edition

As we start to unfold out of months of lockdown, our local environments may look the same but what we feel might be different. Our priorities may have shifted. Our interactions with others may appear and/or feel different. Maybe you are still working from home. Maybe you are working away from home, but with a new set of rules and regulations to keep you safe. Since the COVID 19 pandemic took hold of our lives we are living through new experiences and new perspectives, day to day.

And through this, you have continued to support MSF and the critical work that we are doing around this globe that we all share. We are all in this together. Your support demonstrates your belief in this.

This update is a testament to your invaluable support that allows our programs to keep running, adapting and preparing during the ever-evolving challenges of this pandemic. Thank you.

Cover photo © Mariana Abdalla/MSF

An MSF team of doctors, nurses, logisticians and biomedical technicians painstakingly move a patient seriously-ill with COVID-19 during their transfer to a new purpose-built intensive care unit at our COVID-19 treatment centre in Aden. Photo © Jacob Burns/MSF

Our Priorities

As COVID-19 starts to settle out in Europe and Canada, the epicentre is shifting to the global south. MSF staff and supporters continue working to deliver vital services, responding to emergencies, continuing regular medical services and preparing for what may come for populations in need.

The safety of staff and health care providers remains a top priority. It is paramount that we ensure the supply of proper protective equipment is available for them to safely address the medical needs of the populations we are serving.

Our comprehensive community approach is working. We are able to move to where the need is, when it is needed, with a tailored response. There are many programs that are wrapping up or programs which are closing, because the need has passed. We continue to start up new programs or adjust existing programs where the hotspots are popping up, based on community needs and the local capacity to respond. Adjusting our programs based on available resources is a priority to maintain dignity for the people we serve. Where lifesaving equipment is unavailable, palliative care is offered.

Mohammed Hashim is MSF's first patient at the newly opened 32-bed COVID-19 Treatment Centre in Herat, western Afghanistan. The objective is to support the response of the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and relieve the pressure on MoPH facilities in the area, which are currently overwhelmed. Photo © Laura McAndrew/MSF

Our Challenges

To respond to our priorities, the need for medical staff and supplies is constant. Before the pandemic this was a challenge. Now, even more so. With closed borders and travel restrictions the efforts to get staff and supplies where they are needed has required new ways of approaching this challenge.

In many communities and refugee camps where we currently work, we know we cannot wait for the virus to arrive and then respond. We need to prepare before it arrives. Particularly for populations where physical distancing and proper hygiene are already a challenge.

In order for MSF to continue supporting the needs of populations who do not have access to healthcare, we must continue to work together in creative ways.



The WHO announced the largest daily confirmed cases worldwide just last week. New communities are being overwhelmed by the virus. We know what that fear feels like when the virus reached our communities. A deeper understanding and empathy for people around the world has emerged due to the effect of this virus.

In Mexico the number of recorded cases is increasing exponentially. We are most concerned about the vulnerable populations we currently provide services to in the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, which are situated along the Mexico-US border.

In coordination with the Reynosa and Matamoros health authorities, MSF has opened COVID-19 treatment centres in both cities to help prevent their health systems from becoming overwhelmed. The two centres are housed in Tamaulipas State University basketball gymnasiums.

An isolation area has been established inside the COVID-19 centre in Reynosa for people who have been deported from the United States and are suspected of carrying the virus. In this area returnees will have a safe space to be quarantined until our team confirm they do not have COVID-19 or they fully recover from the infection. The centre in Matamoros has been set up to care for patients with mild cases of COVID-19, who do not have the option of isolating at home.

Both facilities have 20 beds and oxygen concentrators to care for patients with severe symptoms. The centres will be managed by MSF health staff 24 hours a day throughout the week.

In addition to medical and nursing teams, both centres will have staff trained in mental health, health promotion and social work to guarantee comprehensive healthcare services for patients and their families. They will provide services over the telephone to patients and in person with their families in a safe zone.

“For MSF, safety is a priority and this project is no exception. We have ensured that our teams have all the necessary protection equipment and all staff have had training so they know how to use it in a proper way,” says Emma Picasso, MSF project medical referent in Reynosa.

MSF is in direct and constant communication with health authorities in both cities, so they can refer patients to the centres or to refer them in case they present with a complication.

“We are here with the objective to help people cope with a complex and difficult situation, and we are going to offer them dignified and humane treatment, also the adequate medical care base on the experience MSF can provide,” says Citlali Barba, MSF project medical referent in Matamoros.

Alongside the COVID-19 treatment centres, MSF will continue to provide comprehensive healthcare to migrants, asylum seekers and victims of violence in Matamoros and Reynosa. As an additional service, MSF has also opened a phone line to provide mental healthcare to survivors of violence and people who have suffered emotional traumas as a result of the pandemic.

Photo © Sergio Ortiz/MSF

Stories from the Field

When the pandemic hotspot was in Europe, MSF responded where needed. Some of those responses are now closing- like in France, Belgium and Italy-where the need has passed. The focus remains on preparing for anticipated needs and responding to new needs.

Gweneth Thirlwell is a project administrator from Montreal who has worked with MSF in Democratic Republic of Congo and in South Sudan. She is currently working with MSF’s COVID-19 response team in Matamoros, in northwestern Mexico. She recently shared some of her ongoing experience as the team in Matamoros were preparing a COVID response.

How has COVID-19 changed the way MSF is responding in the field?

MSF usually responds reactively to emergencies – coming in after a disaster or conflict has created a humanitarian emergency. In response to COVID-19 in Mexico, MSF teams are taking a much more proactive approach. In Tamaulipas state, where Matamoras is located, MSF launched a response before COVID-19 cases were declared, allowing us to build the systems and infrastructure to be prepared for an impending outbreak.

Do you get a sense of what kind of impact MSF’s presence is having in Matamoros, Mexico?

Since COVID-19 cases have not yet exploded in Matamoras, the direct impact MSF has had on any patients with COVID-19 is yet to be seen. However, MSF’s health promotion efforts – encouraging people to wash their hands and socially distance when possible – has helped educate the community on staying healthy. MSF has also supported water and sanitation efforts inside a migrant camp along the border with the United States.

MSF’s objective here in Matamoros is to prepare for an emergency, and we are working hard to ensure our efforts mean people will have access to the critical healthcare they need. Matamoras lacks the local capacity to respond to an influx of COVID-19 cases and the MSF’s teams’ construction of the 40-bed COVID-19 care facility is double the city’s bed capacity. This will be particularly impactful for the city’s most vulnerable residents – especially migrants, who are unable to access the existing Mexican healthcare system. If COVID-19 hits the city in the coming weeks or months, MSF’s COVID-19 care facility will be critical. The safety net we’ve built will be there to save lives.

(Note: This interview took place in early June. The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects continue to rapidly evolve. Details in the article may change over time.)

Photo © MSF/Cristopher Rogel Blanquet

in the news

Vaccines and access to medicines

MSF has advocated for fair access and prices for essential medicines, around the world, for decades. Now, with the push to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Jason Nickerson and his team are publicly calling on the Canadian government to ensure that any vaccine that is developed with Canadian taxpayer dollars must be made available to all and at a fair price, globally.




A country brought to its knees by war is now battling COVID-19 country-wide with very few supports in place. In this moving interview with CBC’s “As it Happens” MSF’s Head of Mission in Yemen, Claire Haduong talks about the continued critical situation in the country.

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-thursday-edition-1.5608049 (Find the interview at 47.50)

You may also be interested to view/listen to this piece of powerful temoignage produced by MSF on Yemen: https://insideyemen.msf.org/en/

MSF Global Response

For up-to-date detailed information on our international activities by country, click here.


MSF Canada will be hosting a series of Facebook Live presentations that will highlight the principles of MSF in action: Independence, Impartiality and Neutrality.