MSF steps up response to coronavirus pandemic in Europe

MSF starts COVID-19 coronavirus activities in France

France 2020 © Agnes Varraine-Leca/MSF

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has expanded its response to the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, France, Norway, Greece, and Belgium.



“As an emergency humanitarian organization, MSF provides medical assistance to vulnerable people in a moment of crisis and societal disruption," said Dr. Christos Christou, MSF international president. "Today, in Europe, some of the most advanced health systems in the world are buckling under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to epidemics is at the core of what we do—intervening when the system is overrun and where we can put our expertise in managing emergencies to good use."


Helping the elderly

Elderly people are among the most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease. In Italy, Belgium, and Spain, MSF has extended activities to support nursing homes for the elderly. People living in these facilities often live in close quarters, and the homes usually do not have specialized medical equipment.

In the Marche region of Italy, MSF doctors, nurses, and hygiene experts are supporting staff and local municipalities to set up infection prevention and control (IPC) measures. In Spain, MSF is advising nursing homes on case management, risk assessment, and the implementation of IPC. In Belgium, MSF is carrying out health promotion and IPC measures in nursing homes in and around Brussels.  

Supporting migrants, refugees, and homeless people

In Belgium, France, and Switzerland MSF is assisting vulnerable groups living in precarious conditions, such as the homeless and migrants. People living in overcrowded conditions, on the streets, in makeshift camps, or in substandard housing are at particular risk of contracting coronavirus. Many are already in poor health, often as a result of their living conditions. Viruses thrive in areas with poor water and sanitation. In addition, many of these marginalized groups are excluded from formal national health care systems.

In Brussels, MSF has set up a 50-bed facility with the capacity to increase to 150 beds. The center provides a space where migrants and homeless people can isolate, receive medical care, and be transferred to hospitals.

In Paris and the surrounding areas, MSF teams are intervening in emergency shelters, helping detect those who are potentially ill with COVID-19. In the coming days, the team plans to expand its activities to also provide consultations to people living on the street. In Geneva, MSF is providing logistical and health support for vulnerable people living in precarious conditions and training staff and volunteers working with these groups.

Supporting hospitals and keeping health care workers safe

In Spain, MSF has set up two health units with a capacity of more than 200 beds to help hospitals in Madrid. The units support the hospitals’ emergency services by taking moderate patient cases so that the emergency room and intensive care units can focus on those who are most severely affected by COVID-19. Managed by the medical staff of the hospitals, MSF is providing support with logistics and monitoring. MSF is also advising health authorities as they develop temporary units to expand hospital capacity in Madrid, Catalonia (including two hospitals in Barcelona), and Vitoria.

In Belgium, MSF is supporting five hospitals in Hainaut and Antwerp provinces, providing technical advice and training, and is ready to increase admission capacity.

In Switzerland, MSF is supporting the Geneva University Hospital (HUG), sharing expertise to help with the management of patients that have contracted COVID-19 and with the organization of medical teams and services in the hospital. Under the coordination of the HUG, MSF has a mobile medical team ready to provide home-based care to people with COVID-19 that do not meet the criteria for hospital admission. In collaboration with the City of Geneva, MSF has made recommendations to public and private mortuary services on procedures to avoid any post-mortem transmission of the disease.

In Norway, MSF is providing strategic advice and IPC support to a hospital in an area near Oslo that is home to one of the country’s main clusters of cases. Also, in Greece, MSF teams are supporting isolation in Samos camp and evaluating the support needed by hospitals. In Lesbos, MSF has prepared an emergency plan for the Moria refugee camp, should the epidemic spread.

Further afield

MSF teams are also supporting COVID-19 activities in conjunction with health authorities around the world—from Afghanistan to Libya to Nigeria to Syria to Hong Kong. 

MSF has seen how this virus has crippled some of the most advanced health systems in countries with a social safety net, where most people have access to running water and space to self-isolate. This is simply not possible for people in many of the countries where we typically work. Our greatest concern is that the virus could take hold in places with weaker health systems with vulnerable people who can’t protect themselves. Wherever we work, we are acting to maintain health care activities in an increasingly challenging context of travel restrictions and constraints on the movement of goods. International solidarity will be crucial, while the response to COVID-19 will have to be tailored to every setting, community, and local capacity. 

"Today, all levels of MSF are impacted, bringing new challenges and requiring even more collaboration and creativity to find solutions," said Dr. Christou. "We’re adapting as quick as we can to prepare for COVID-19 in our projects around the world, despite the travel restrictions and supply shortages."