COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease)

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by infection with a new type of coronavirus. It was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020. 

Our COVID-19 Mission Statement

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020.

Roughly 80 per cent of confirmed cases of COVID-19 experience a mild respiratory illness but it has a higher rate of severe complications for vulnerable people – such as the elderly and people with compromised immune systems – than other viruses such as flu.  

The high level of supportive and intensive care required for people who become seriously ill has placed a heavy burden on some of the world’s most advanced healthcare systems. Where healthcare systems are less advanced, it will be very difficult to provide a similar level of care. 

Given this is a pandemic, MSF’s ability to respond on the scale required is limited, but we are currently responding in all the countries where we have projects by preparing our own teams and facilities and focusing on vulnerable groups of people. 

We are deeply concerned about how COVID-19 might affect people living in precarious situations such as the homeless, those living in refugee camps in Greece or Bangladesh, or people affected by conflict in Yemen or Syria

We must do everything we can to prevent and reduce further spread of the virus.  

We know from our experience that trust in the response and health authorities is an essential component for outbreak control. Clear, timely and honest communication and guidance is needed so that people can be empowered to protect themselves. 

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, is world’s newest coronavirus, with the first cases discovered in late 2019 and formally identified in early 2020. This virus affects the respiratory system and is transmitted through airborne droplets, likely through coughing or sneezing. The most common symptoms are general tiredness, a fever, and a dry cough; in more severe cases, people can develop difficulty breathing and pneumonia. 

COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, China and has since spread around the world. The official name of the COVID-19 virus is SARS-CoV-2, due to similarities to the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Among the large coronavirus family, SARS, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and now COVID-19 can cause severe lung infections, whereas others cause colds. Not all coronaviruses affect humans. 

How dangerous is COVID-19?

Approximately 3.4 per cent of those who have contracted COVID-19 have died. By comparison, the death rate for seasonal flu is less than 1 per cent annually. Based on global estimates, 80 per cent of people who become infected will only suffer from a mild or moderate form of disease, 15 per cent will require hospitalisation, and around 5 per cent will be critically ill. However, the availability and accuracy of data varies from country to country.

The risk of serious illness from COVID-19 increases with age. The disease is more dangerous for elderly people and people suffering from pre-existing or underlying infections or ailments. Some infected people show only mild symptoms of the disease or show no symptoms at all, which makes it possible to unknowingly transmit COVID-19 to someone who may be more susceptible to a severe form of the illness. 

The rapid spread of the virus has made it more dangerous through its effects on the world’s health systems. Even advanced health care systems have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of patients needing hospital admission for high level care at such a rapid pace. As a result, some critically ill patients have been unable to access care. 

How contagious is COVID-19?

Our understanding of COVID-19 is still evolving. The virus can be spread by anyone who has COVID-19, but it can also be spread by people who only have mild, or no, symptoms, and are unaware they have the virus. This makes it much harder to get a clear understanding of the spread patterns.

The COVID-19 virus has proven more contagious than the previous SARS outbreak in 2003. In some countries the growth has been exponential, while others have been able to “flatten the curve” through preventative measures. Many details about the infectivity of the virus are still being investigated, including how long it can survive in different circumstances outside the human body and how many viral particles are required for an infection.

How can I prevent the spread of COVID-19?

It's important to take precautions to avoid contracting the virus for your own health, as well as the health of the people around you. COVID-19, like other viruses, appears to be spread mainly through droplet infection. The virus can enter your body through your nose or mouth if you breathe in infected droplets or touch a surface on which droplets have landed and then touch your face. 

Simple infection control measures, like wearing a mask, handwashing and cough and sneeze etiquette, are effective at preventing the spread of the virus. 

Physical distancing—also known as social distancing—is encouraged in areas where the virus is transmitting between people in the community, as this distance helps prevent the virus passing from person to person. Avoid crowded places and large gatherings, and abide by local health advice.  

How is COVID-19 affecting the world’s healthcare systems?

As COVID-19 spreads to countries with limited access to essential tools like personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 tests, oxygen and drugs for supportive care, the response has become urgent. Faced with suddenly having to treat large numbers of new patients, countries with already fragile health systems can quickly collapse under the pressure. 

The impact can be disastrous—if medical care were to falter, common childhood killers like measles, malaria, and diarrhoea would go untreated. 

Healthcare systems worldwide urgently need access to vaccines and other medical tools so that essential medical services can continue running. 

How is MSF responding to COVID-19?

Protecting patients and healthcare workers is essential, so our medical teams are preparing for potential cases of COVID-19 in our projects.
In places where there is a higher chance of cases, this means ensuring infection control measures are in place, setting up screening at triage, isolation areas, and health education.
In most countries where we work, we are coordinating with the WHO and Ministries of Health to see how we can help in case of a high load of COVID-19 patients and are providing training on infection control for health facilities.

MSF's Dr Pedro Ueda explains a medical prescription to a patient in Lagoinha indigenous village in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. After contracting COVID-19, the patient and her husband were kept isolated at home and received visits from the health team to monitor their recovery. © Diego Baravelli/MSF

Supporting healthcare workers

Healthcare staff have a much greater risk of contracting the virus than people not working in the healthcare sector. In hospitals and other healthcare facilities that are overwhelmed by large numbers of patients and under conditions where there may be a reduced workforce due to sickness, this risk increases significantly. 

MSF is committed to ensuring safety for healthcare workers is the top priority in every healthcare facility we work in. In locations where MSF has existing projects, our teams are working together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and local Ministries of Health to oversee infection prevention and control measures, setting up COVID-19 screening points, isolating patients with any symptoms, and health education in the local areas. These measures help ensure that both staff and communities are as protected as possible during the pandemic.

Protecting communities at risk

The COVID-19 pandemic places those living in uncertain conditions at higher risk. People living in overcrowded accommodation, on the streets, in refugee camps, or in substandard housing are at particular risk. They are unable to physically distance themselves due to their living environments, and may lack access to clean water and sanitation services that would allow them to keep themselves safe through regular handwashing and other hygienic measures.

Many of those at risk are already in poor health and excluded from the formal healthcare system. Without the option for physical distancing, MSF teams must find other ways to help people keep themselves protected. These methods include mass distributions of soap, clean water, and, in carefully considered circumstances, reusable cloth masks. 

The elderly are most at risk of contracting a severe form of the illness, so our COVID-19 responses focuses on strengthening the infection control measures and protection of those living in nursing homes. Also at risk are those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, HIV or tuberculosis. We don’t yet know what the impact will be for children who suffer from severe malnutrition, or for communities that have been hit hard by the current measles outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. 

Keeping essential medical services running

Fragile health systems can quickly collapse under the intense pressure that comes with an epidemic and the many people who may fall ill. With only limited health staff and weak infrastructure to support them, regular and essential services are at risk when they are needed the most. If healthcare falters, common childhood killers like measles, malaria and diarrhoea, go untreated.

To better prepare the hundreds of health facilities MSF works in around the world and prevent transmission of COVID-19, our teams have been rolling out infection control measures and reorganising our medical services. Consultations have been adjusted to maintain safe distances between patients, and hospital wards have been redesigned to allow more space between each bed. Separate patient pathways have been established to divert people with suspected COVID-19 away from other patients.

We have suspended non-essential activities, such as elective surgery, and re-organised others to reduce the risks for patients and staff. For children in Chad during the current measles outbreak, our teams are preparing to provide vaccinations door-to-door. In Niger, MSF community health workers are conducting malaria check-ups within communities to avoid having large groups of people visiting health centres. For people living with HIV in Kenya, we are adapting our care by giving antiretroviral drugs to patients in three-month batches so they need to access health centres less frequently. Similarly, our teams in South Africa are ensuring HIV, TB and co-infected patients have medicine refills delivered straight to their homes. 

Preserving access to healthcare, both for COVID-19 patients as well as all others, is our paramount concern. Despite these current constraints, all MSF teams are striving to find ways to keep our lifesaving medical work running despite the serious challenges this pandemic is presenting.

Advocating for access to a COVID-19 vaccine

MSF advocates strongly for access to essential medical tools to all, at an affordable cost. We now have a new virus and disease, in the form of COVID-19, requiring the development of new tools, such as drugs, tests and vaccines. It is important that there should be no profiteering on any emerging medical tools used for this pandemic. High prices and monopolies of tools will only result in rationing and certain people missing out, which will prolong the pandemic.

Governments, pharmaceutical corporations, and research organisations need to take the necessary measures to ensure that the medical tools urgently needed for COVID-19 are accessible, affordable, and available to all. Once approved or available, tools must be prioritised for healthcare and frontline workers first, and then supplied based on equity and need.

Where is MSF responding to Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in Afghanistan since 1980, providing emergency surgical care, responding to conflict and natural disasters, and treating people cut off from healthcare. 

MSF worked in Angola from 1983 until 2007. Why were we there? Armed conflict Endemic/Epidemic disease Social violence/Healthcare exclusion

MSF worked in Argentina from 2001 until 2003. Why were we there? Providing essential medicines and supplies

MSF worked in Belgium from 1987 to 2009

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Social violence/healthcare exclusion Natural disaster

Why are we there? Endemic/Epidemic disease

Cameroon is facing multiple and overlapping crises, including recurrent epidemics, malnutrition due to food insecurity, displacement, and conflict.

Why are we there? Armed conflict Endemic/epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Armed conflict Healthcare exclusion Natural disaster

The political, economic and military crises of 2002-2010 have taken a severe toll on the Ivorian health system.

MSF worked in Ecuador until 2007. Why were we there? Endemic/Epidemic disease Natural disaster

Find out more about MSF's work in Egypt

In France, we work with migrants and refugees, who encounter policies and practices aimed at preventing them from settling or claiming their rights.

Why are we there? Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Armed conflict Endemic/epidemic disease Social violence/heathcare exclusion

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease

Haiti’s healthcare system remains precarious in the wake of natural disasters and ongoing political and economic crises. Ongoing disasters have led to Haiti becoming the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Honduras has experienced years of political, economic and social instability, and has one of the highest rates of violence in the world. This has great medical, psychological and social consequences for people.

An MSF team in Hong Kong opened a project at the end of January focusing on health education for vulnerable people. Community engagement is a crucial activity of any outbreak response and in Hong Kong, this focuses on groups who are less likely to have access to important medical information, such as the socio-economically disadvantaged. The team is also targeting those who are more vulnerable to developing severe disease if they are infected, such as the elderly.

MSF worked in Indonesia between 1995 and 2009 Why were we there? Natural disaster

Find out about MSF's work in Iran

Why we are there? Healthcare exclusion Natural disaster

Why are we there? Natural disasters

Jordan hosts over 700,000 refugees, according to the UNHCR, many of whom reside in camps or have settled in the country.

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Healthcare exclusion

Although health services are being progressively restored in Liberia, important gaps persist, notably in specialised paediatric care and mental health.

Libya remains fragmented by a decade of conflict and political instability. The breakdown of law and order, the collapse of the economy, and fighting have decimated the healthcare system.

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Natural disaster

Access to medical care remains very limited in the north and centre of Mali due to a lack of medical staff and supplies and spiralling violence between armed groups.

Why are we there? Access to healthcare

In Mozambique we are responding to emergencies including disease outbreaks, providing care to people with advanced HIV, while also working in the conflict-ridden Cabo-Delgado province.

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Social violence/healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Providing comprehensive emergency healthcare to people in remote regions of Pakistan is a priority, yet accessibility and security are a constraint for both Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and patients.

Why are we there? Armed conflict Healthcare exclusion

MSF worked in Rwanda from 1991 until 2007.
Why were we there? Conflict Healthcare exclusion Endemic/Epidemic disease

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Armed conflict Endemic/epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why were we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Refugee assistance

Why are we there? Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Armed conflict Endemic/Epidemic disease Healthcare exclusion

Why were we there? Healthcare exclusion

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease

Why are we there? Endemic/epidemic disease Social violence Healthcare exclusion

How our pre-existing projects are being affected

On any given day we are treating hundreds of thousands of patients for a variety of illnesses. We need to ensure we can continue to provide adequate and life-saving medical care in our ongoing projects.

This is challenging because current travel restrictions are limiting our ability to move staff between different countries.

Establishing future supplies of certain key items, such as surgical masks, swabs, gloves and chemicals for diagnosis of COVID-19 is also of concern.

There is a risk of supply shortages due to lack of production of generic drugs and difficulties to import essential drugs (such as antibiotics and antiretroviral drugs) due to lockdowns, reduced production of basic products, exportation stops or repurposing/stocking of drugs and material for COVID-19.

"This is what matters in the end: doctors and nurses need to be equipped to provide the best possible care to patients in what might be a chaotic situation."

Tankred Stöbe
MSF emergency coordinator


Will you support
our emergency medical work?

Médecins Sans Frontières is providing support and medical care around the world to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re providing essential care through dedicated COVID-19 facilities, equipping frontline medical staff with PPE and training, and supporting health authorities through testing and community education.

With 50 years of experience fighting epidemics, we’re committed to protecting the most vulnerable and saving lives.

Can you help increase our capacity to respond to emergencies like COVID-19 by making a donation today?