In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all thinking about how we can keep ourselves and our families safe. We watched the virus spread from China to countries all over the world. It was only a matter of time until it showed up in developing regions, which already face challenges like poverty, limited health care infrastructure, poor sanitation and more.

The good news is that many impressive international nonprofits are already on the ground in these places, responding and helping those who need it most. However, history tells us that the most vulnerable communities across the world will face the most serious impacts of this pandemic. During times of crisis, the human rights of oppressed and marginalized people are nearly always further violated.

One organization in particular is working each day to make a difference in millions of lives and build a more just and equitable world, during this crisis and every day. Founded in 1985 by American Jews who joined together as global citizens to help the poorest and most oppressed people around the globe, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is the leading Jewish organization working to fight poverty, realize human rights and pursue justice in the developing world.

In 2019, AJWS supported 487 grassroots organizations in 19 countries. Through philanthropy and advocacy, they respond to the most pressing issues of our time – from disasters, genocide and hunger, to the persecution of women and minorities worldwide. And right now, the most pressing issue is COVID-19.

COVID-19: Who is most at-risk?
AJWS’s fight against the new coronavirus is focused on the communities they have always stood alongside: religious and ethnic minorities; women and girls; the LGBTQI+ community; indigenous and rural populations; refugees; and all those suffering from poverty and persecution. With that in mind, they have identified several countries where there is a particularly strong concern of human rights violations:

  • In Bangladesh, more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees live in overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazaar after having survived genocide in Burma. Given the close quarters in the camp, they do not have the option to socially distance. Additionally, hygiene knowledge and sanitation access is limited. The camps have minimal capacity to provide intensive care treatment, so an outbreak of COVID-19 would spread rapidly.
  • In Uganda, local government officials are already using COVID-19 as cover to discriminate against vulnerable populations, like the country’s LGBTQI+ community. During times of crisis, authoritarian governments often disregard the human rights of marginalized communities—and further stigmatize these populations in the eyes of the public. Stigma and discrimination can occur when people associate a disease, such as COVID-19, with a particular part of the population. It can also occur after a person has been released from quarantine despite the fact that they are not considered a risk for spreading COVID-19 to others. Just last month, a local mayor and his security forces stormed a shelter for LGBT youth, arresting 23 people under false charges that they were willfully spreading the virus.
  • In the Dominican Republic, the public health system is still in disarray from Hurricane Maria and other prior disasters. There are only 250 ICU beds in the entire country—which has a population of over 10 million. Therefore, it has limited capacity to respond to COVID-19. Marginalized communities who already experience discrimination – like Dominicans of Haitian descent, Haitian migrants, LGBTQI+ people and sex workers – may not have access to critical health care.

People work with a sewing machine to create masks to protect against COVID-19.

AJWS’s Response
In all of the countries where they work, AJWS is supporting their partners in several crucial ways: to provide emergency food aid and clean water to people who are desperately in need, soap, hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, as well as to distribute critical information about safety and hygiene through social media, radio and print. They are also allowing partners to reallocate current funding to address the immediate, emergency needs of the communities they serve.

AJWS partners continue to courageously protect the rights and safety of oppressed communities. One partner is documenting human rights violations perpetrated as a result of government measures to contain the spread of the virus. Another partner is offering free emergency legal support for those who need to defend themselves against these human rights violations. These are just a few of many examples that highlight how AJWS and their partners are helping marginalized communities worldwide.

AJWS is also helping to disseminate life-saving, factual information about the virus and how to prevent its spread.

Here in the U.S., we are bombarded with news, social media and messaging on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The opposite is true for many refugee and vulnerable populations. AJWS responded to this need by developing a toolkit for their partners that outlines internationally recognized standards to mitigate COVID-19. The toolkit has been translated into 10 languages for ease of access and contains vital information for community members on hygiene, social distancing, symptom monitoring and how to care for sick relatives. It also includes suggestions for AJWS partners to educate their communities and keep themselves safe during this crisis.

Local partners are distributing the information through health volunteers within the refugee communities, local radio broadcasts, social media and loudspeaker announcements in refugee camps.

Getting involved
AJWS and their partners are working hard around the world to help those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here at home, we may be practicing social distancing, but we can still get involved by helping AJWS and staying informed.

  • Schedule a Lunch and Learn. Give your staff an opportunity to come together (virtually) during lunchtime by inviting AJWS for a Lunch and Learn. AJWS can fill you in on their COVID-19 response and what you and your employees can do to help. Consider asking about how their response efforts and work in diversity and inclusion have converged. This could be a particularly interesting opportunity for Employee Resource Groups, which are groups of employees who join together in their workplace based on shared characteristics or life experiences.  Don’t forget to touch base with your employees afterward – discuss what you learned, ask for their thoughts and brainstorm how you can make a difference.
  • Stay informed. AJWS has a dedicated page for all of their COVID-19 updates. From partner responses to how specific communities are being impacted, keep yourself informed on the nuances of the pandemic by checking AJWS’s Updates from the Field. You can also follow them on social media, where they keep their Facebook and Twitter feeds updated with information about their grantees’ work.
  • Share AJWS’ toolkit. Your employees are living in a unique world, one that doesn’t always make sense and often has more questions than answers. Fill that gap with AJWS’ toolkit. These guidelines can be put to good use no matter where in the world you are.
  • Donate. AJWS is supporting communities that have urgent needs. A gift through your workplace helps courageous activists respond to the crisis, fight misinformation with truth and protect the human rights of those most vulnerable to this pandemic.

No matter where you live, we are all facing uncertain times. It is important to remember that no matter how scary things can be, there is always good in the world. AJWS, like many of our Charity Alliance partners, is working hard to help curb COVID-19 while also supporting oppressed and marginalized people globally, as they always have. You can join the fight to help stop the pandemic and assist in protecting the most vulnerable people at the same time.