LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Warning that the COVID-19 coronavirus is “a tsunami heading towards the homes of millions of poor communities,” England’s leading Catholic international aid agency has launched an appeal to help prepare vulnerable communities from the effects of the pandemic.

“The potential scale of the pandemic across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East – as well as among refugee and displaced populations in places such as Syria, South Sudan and the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh – is truly frightening,” said Christine Allen, the director of Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), the international development agency of the bishops’ conference of England and Wales.

CAFOD says aside from the deaths that are likely to be caused by COVID-19, the pandemic will be a crisis for poor people who face unemployment and loss of access to markets during the crisis.

“These are vulnerable families who are unprepared to fight this virus and are being pushed to the brink of hunger and poverty,” Allen said.

According to an April 17 report from the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa, over 300,000 Africans could lose their lives due to COVID-19 and 27 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty. The report also notes that over a third of households in Africa have no access to handwashing facilities, with many of the others having only limited access.

“We must not wait until we see the terrible headlines about millions of people whose lives have been lost to the coronavirus,” said Allen. “Donations have never been more urgent, providing steadfast support to those who are in greatest need.”

CAFOD says it is scaling up its support to local aid experts to provide food and improve handwashing and sanitation facilities in communities and households.

“We have a narrow window of opportunity to reach communities with the basics for life – food and clean water, and the messages they need on how best to keep safe,” said Allen. “Our local aid experts are already responding and trying to alleviate what is likely to be a catastrophe in terms of hunger, poverty and death as a result of this pandemic.”

CAFOD is helping to deliver food to where it is needed most; improving hygiene, handwashing and sanitation at the community and household level; producing radio messages, posters and leaflets in local languages on risks and prevention; and training community volunteers to carry out awareness campaigns.

CAFOD’s John Birchenough, Head of Humanitarian Programs and Global Support, told Crux what the organization is doing in Syrian refugee camps to fight the pandemic.

“Inside Syria we are about to start a water and sanitation project; setting up latrines, and places for people to wash themselves and do laundry. This is with displaced people in North West Syria where at this moment there is a cease fire. Work will also include hygiene promotion to reduce the risk of the coronavirus,” he said.

Allen said that the Catholic Church has a unique role to play in the crisis, both due to the fact that a large proportion of healthcare is provided by Catholic organizations – a third in Africa – and because of the need for information from trusted sources.

“Trust is essential for winning over communities, changing behaviors, and reducing the spread of coronavirus,” she explained.

Birchenough told Crux trust is especially important “when supporting communities in an environment of misinformation and fear.”

“Pivotal to our coronavirus response will be working with faith and community leaders, equipping them with the knowledge and understanding to promote the right information on the coronavirus in their communities,” he said.

“Rooted in our experiences from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2015, and more recently in 2019 in DR Congo; we understood the powerful force of bringing together and mobilizing faith leaders of all faiths – training them to deliver the basic hygiene messages on how to stop the spread of the Ebola disease,” Birchenough continued.

“The coronavirus will hit some of the world’s poorest communities, pushed to the edge of survival – families who face drought, food shortages, economic collapse and conflict. We must now put all our efforts into scaling up our response to reach those most in need,” he added.

Allen said it is “our collective actions now” that can save lives.

“We can all be infected by the virus, but this crisis has revealed just how unequal our world and society are. Its economic and social impacts will be long-lasting and most devastating for the poorest,” she said.

“That is why we are calling for the cancellation of debt owed by some of the world’s poorest countries so that they can finance their response to coronavirus, shore up fragile health systems, and relaunch their economies.”

You can contribute to CAFOD’s coronavirus appeal here.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome