People on the move must not be left behind in the COVID-19 response

Oxfam America
5 min readApr 28, 2020


Pandemics know no borders. The sooner our leaders understand that urgent action must be taken everywhere — not just on our soil — the sooner we can begin to mitigate the spread of this devastating virus.

Oxfam America President Abby Maxman meets with an asylum-seeker from Honduras in Tijuana with Jorge Romero, Program Director of Oxfam Mexico in January 2019. Photo: Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam

This crisis is testing our values as nation and as a global community. It’s forcing us to remember that every person deserves to be treated equally and with dignity and compassion. From our decades responding to humanitarian crises around the world, Oxfam knows all too well that when crisis hits, the poorest and more marginalized communities — here in the US and around the world — suffer the worst impacts.

This virus does not care if you are a billionaire or refugee. It doesn’t care what country you live in or if you have paid sick leave. The virus doesn’t care, but it’s up to all of us to prove that we do, and put the pressure on our leaders to respond with policies that uphold the dignity and rights of every person.

Even before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the US, it’s clear the Trump administration has not taken this into account. Whether it is the lack of coordinated action with other governments, an inhumane response at our borders, or the disregarding of marginalized populations here in the US, this administration is leaving the most vulnerable behind.

This shouldn’t be surprising; to the contrary, it is the logical extension of the Trump administration’s longstanding anti-refugee and anti-immigrant agenda. Last week, the Trump administration cruelly enacted a new Executive Order barring many forms of immigration to the US, demonstrating that there is no pretext too flimsy for President Trump to use as an excuse to fulfill his radical anti-refugee and anti-immigrant agenda.

Isra Chaker, Oxfam America’s Senior Migration and Protection Campaign Lead, joins a rally protesting the Trump administration’s 2019 refugee resettlement announcement. Photo: Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam

Since coming to office, President Trump launched an unrelenting series of attacks on fundamental American values of welcome, inclusion, and tolerance, from the Muslim Ban to slashing refugee resettlement numbers. And from those first days, we showed up at the airports, in the streets, and up in front of the White House to remind him that his policies do not reflect America’s values.

Yet rather than scaling back such efforts during a pandemic, the administration has accelerated many of its worst xenophobic policies, putting all of us at risk and ignoring the fundamental reality that none of us can be truly healthy unless everyone is.

This is particularly important for the more than 70 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world, who have the same human right to health as everyone on earth, regardless of their migratory status. Efforts to respond to this historic displacement crisis were significantly underfunded even before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, as the global economic impact begins to be felt, they are doubly disadvantaged: already vulnerable and now increasingly likely to be excluded from assistance.

Refugees and internally displaced people living in camps must be high on the agenda, as access to water or other sanitation services in camps often substandard, social distancing measures difficult to enforce, and access to healthcare is severely limited. Refugees living in camps on average share one tap between up to 250 people and many have less than 40 square feet of living space per person. Consider Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where more than 855,000 Rohingya refugees are living in close quarters in makeshift camps — a potential tinderbox for the virus to spread.

The Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar during monsoon season. Photo credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

Oxfam is rapidly scaling up preventive measures like soap distribution and hand washing stations at communal facilities to help 70,000 refugees, but more must be done at all levels.

Yet the vast majority of the world’s displaced people live not in camps but in poorer areas of countries where overcrowding and lack of access to services are a daily reality. Attention must be paid to conflict-ridden nations who don’t have the health systems capable of responding. In South Sudan, for example, there are just two ventilators for twelve million people.

Closer to home, the administration has used the pandemic to turn away people seeking safety on US soil. As a result, asylum seekers are being forced to live in often dangerous Mexican border towns, which are already struggling to respond and provide for the growing numbers of people fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution in Central America.

Migrants in the US are not faring any better. Whether deterred from seeking healthcare, living in fear of ongoing immigration enforcement actions which threaten to separate families and further spread the virus, or excluded from receiving any benefits from the latest stimulus bill, the invisible and marginalized continue to be overlooked.

The wall separating the US-Mexico border as seen from Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: Alyssa Eisenstein/Oxfam

Rather than attacking people who are an essential part of our nation, the Trump administration should focus on what’s truly needed to combat the virus: investments in rapid testing kits and treatment, policies to protect everyone from the impact of COVID19, and greater international collaboration to put an end to this global pandemic before it claims even more lives.

But the situation is not without hope. We know from previous global crises that bold and thoughtful US leadership, in collaboration with nations and communities around the world, can save lives. We must demand our leaders rise to this historic challenge and act now to support the most vulnerable, for we will not see a COVID-19-free world until every last person is cared for.

By Abby Maxman, Oxfam America President



Oxfam America

We’re a global organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, hunger, and injustice.