An EU air bridge

When cross-border travel was restricted due the coronavirus pandemic, vital assistance couldn't reach those most in need. The EU’s response, with help from international organisations and civil society, was to establish an air bridge - essentially a travel corridor - between the Union and non-EU countries to ensure the delivery of much needed supplies.

Since May, thanks to air bridge flights funded by the EU, 20 countries from across Africa, Asia and the Americas have received over 1,150 tons of medical equipment and humanitarian cargo. Air bridge flights have also transported nearly 1,700 medical and humanitarian staff, as well as other passengers.

EU Humanitarian Bridge supplies bound for São Tomé and Príncipe © European Union, 2020

EU Humanitarian Bridge supplies bound for São Tomé and Príncipe © European Union, 2020

The Democratic Republic of Congo

The coronavirus pandemic came as an additional challenge to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country already grappling with Ebola, measles and cholera. That’s why, as part of a joint operation with Belgium, France and the DRC authorities, the EU organised three air bridge flights.

Medical supplies, personal protection equipment and water purifiers were delivered to the teams on the ground. And when all other international flights were cancelled, the air bridge was the only way that humanitarian workers could be transported from the EU to the DRC. 

“The EU air bridge flight was the only way to get in and out of the country. It helped us to continue our work and we are really grateful for that. This kind of support is really amazing. It’s not just money, but something that makes our work much easier,” says Duncan Fleck, the Democratic Republic of Congo country director at Medair, a Swiss humanitarian aid organisation.

EU Humanitarian Air Bridge supplies to the DRC © European Union, 2020

EU Humanitarian Air Bridge supplies to the DRC © European Union, 2020

São Tomé and Príncipe

The EU and Portugal rallied to open a humanitarian air bridge from Europe to São Tome and Principe in West Africa. Flights from Europe transported 20 tonnes of World Health Organization (WHO)-funded supplies, as well as WHO-mobilised humanitarian and health workers.

The latter proved to be vital in São Tomé and Príncipe’s fight against coronavirus. A team of Portuguese medical experts helped to set up a field hospital that could serve the country’s entire population. Prior to this, the national hospital was under enormous stress and unable to efficiently and safely treat coronavirus cases.

“Without the EU humanitarian flight there would have been no timely tests or treatments, nor safe health facilities to control the COVID-19 outbreak in São Tomé and Príncipe. Thank you, EU,” says Dr Anne Ancia from the World Health Organization.

The relief provided by the air bridge turned out to be useful far beyond the immediate crisis response. The medical equipment that was transferred included tools to increase diagnostic and treatment capacity, which will be helpful for tackling other diseases beyond coronavirus, such as influenza, and future epidemics.

Field hospital in São Tomé and Príncipe © OMS - Sao Tome and Principe, 2020

Field hospital in São Tomé and Príncipe © OMS - Sao Tome and Principe, 2020

Guinea-Bissau

Over the course of four flights, the EU and Portugal delivered more than 45 tons of medical supplies and equipment for health professionals in Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. These supplies had been collected by NGOs in Portugal, Spain and Italy, as well as by UN agencies and the World Bank.

This wave of humanitarian aid will help meet the country’s immediate health needs not only in the face of coronavirus, but also other diseases that need urgent attention during this pandemic period, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

Supplies arriving in Guinea-Bissau © European Union, 2020

Supplies arriving in Guinea-Bissau © European Union, 2020

Afghanistan

When coronavirus took root in Afghanistan, the EU set to work establishing a humanitarian air bridge with the assistance of the Netherlands. A flight departed from Maastricht in June 2020, transporting medical equipment, including coronavirus testing kits, and 100 tonnes of vaccines and supplies for other diseases.

At a time when no other commercial flights carrying medical supplies were coming to Afghanistan, “the EU humanitarian air bridge was extremely important,” says Monique Awad from UNICEF Afghanistan. As half of children in Afghanistan are not fully immunised, the shipment provided life-saving support for a period of 3 months to “390,000 infants under the age of 12 months and 900,000 women of reproductive age,” she adds.

“I know the importance of vaccines for my children, especially now. So, I set my mobile alarm in order not to miss it,” says says Zarmina, a 30-year-old mother of two from Kabul.

Child receiving a vaccination in Afghanistan © UNICEF Afghanistan / Fazel, 2020

Child receiving a vaccination in Afghanistan © UNICEF Afghanistan / Fazel, 2020