By Guy Smagghe, PWS&D Director

There is so much turbulence in our world and so much uncertainty. By the time you read this, much will have changed again. Our global community is facing a common challenge and has been forced to take unprecedented measures to protect people’s lives. As with most sudden onset disasters, the world’s response is prompt. It puts in perspective the fact that we have neglected to care for the most vulnerable on our planet for too long and deal with protracted situations that leave us unprepared as a global human community.

Crowded condition in refugee camps, like this one in Bangladesh, create ideal conditions for the spread of COVID-19. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

As things progress internationally, we are particularly concerned about how the most vulnerable people will be affected by COVID-19. In Canada, we wonder if our health system, one of the best in the world, will have the capacity to deal with the potential number of people needing ventilators or beds in hospital intensive care units, and fear that many could die if the system falls short.

At the same time, we think of those who live in the developing world where health systems are overstretched at the best of times, where facilities are inadequate or simply non-existent. We imagine the potential disastrous scenarios that might emerge should COVID-19 spread in refugee camps, such as Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. A government enforced lockdown, in a district where over a million refugees are crowded, means that no one can enter or exit the camp in an effort to prevent infection and spread.

In Africa, equipment is scarce. The World Health Organization says fewer than 5,000 intensive care beds are available across 43 of the continent’s 54 countries. This is about five beds per million people, whereas in Europe there are 4,000 beds per million people.

When it comes to functional ventilators in public health services across 41 African countries, there are fewer than 2,000. At the time of writing, Ontario alone has 2,000 beds equipped with ventilators. We need to keep these numbers in mind when assessing how the world is doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This pandemic has hit everyone somehow. Some PWS&D staff have lost relatives to COVID-19 and our partners have requested help to assist their staff and the communities they serve.

In Afghanistan, midwives raise awareness with community members about coronavirus. Photo: Community World Service Asia

PWS&D signed on to a letter initiated by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation asking the government to ensure that sufficient resources be allocated to the global response to the pandemic, as most of the focus so far has been on the domestic response.

“We don’t defeat COVID-19 if we don’t defeat it everywhere on the planet,” shared Minister of International Development Karina Gould at a recent online Town Hall. The government has slowly been increasing its international commitments, having currently provided $50 million, mostly through the World Health Organization, to help poorer countries deal with the pandemic, with hopes for increased contributions by the time you read this.

PWS&D is working with our partners to adapt programming as necessary—reallocating funds planned for activities that are not possible at this time and helping ensure increased capacity to access supplies that will help prevent the spread of the virus and assist those who may be sick as a result. We are also keeping in mind the safety and protection of partner staff and community members.

PWS&D has made an initial contribution to the Rapid Response Fund of the ACT Alliance, specifically geared to proposals for urgent action and life-saving initiatives and, where appropriate, interventions for preparedness. PWS&D will support this global response to the extent made possible by resources provided by Presbyterians in Canada.

As I complete the reading of N.T. Wright’s Lent for Everyone, I want to share a few lines that seem most relevant to today’s reality: “There is every reason to hope that this year, or this decade, or this century, God will do new things. Jesus is still Lord – but he rules in the same way that he lived, taught and died. When his followers learn again to do the same, we shall see a fresh start…’I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  Thank you for your solidarity, support and prayers, as we work toward this new start.

To stay up to date on PWS&D’s COVID-19 response or to make a donation, please visit

*This article was first printed in the Summer 2020 issue of Presbyterian Connection newspaper.