COVID-19: Scaling up testing and strengthening national health systems with EU support
Since the beginning of the pandemic, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Europe have been supporting their countries’ health authorities in the fight against COVID-19 through a wide range of services to help curb the spread of the virus and ensure nobody is left behind.
In Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, National Societies expanded mobile testing capacities thanks to a EUR 35.5 million partnership between the European Commission and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The European Commission financed this project as part of its Emergency Support Instrument to boost testing capacities and provide immediate support to Member States. The project’s success – it trained and equipped more testing teams as initially targeted – shows the value of a coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic amongst European Red Cross National Societies.
From September 2020 to September 2021, this initiative has been a vital part of the COVID-19 response, making RT-PCR and rapid antigen testing available for more people. Local Red Cross teams performed more than 1.2 million tests within the scope of the project. Moreover, 6,800 Red Cross staff and volunteers were trained for testing and 1,428 mobile teams were set up and equipped to provide COVID-19 testing services.
The outreach role of National Red Cross Societies and their capacity to reach vulnerable groups has been particularly important in countries like Greece and Malta, where the Red Cross provided health and care services to migrants and refugees. Set up in camps and remote areas, these testing facilities aimed to help contain the spread of COVID-19 where access to health services was often limited.
“Testing is essential to help contain the pandemic. With all its initial targets surpassed, the project has proven that National Societies can play a key role in supporting national health systems in Europe and has opened new possibilities for further collaboration with health authorities,” said IFRC project coordinator Francisco Fong.
Local Red Cross teams also set up testing stations at transport hubs where a large number of people pass by every day. In Italy, staff and volunteers offered rapid antigen tests free of charge at 10 train stations across the country for travellers and commuters. In countries like Austria, Germany, Portugal and Spain, the Red Cross mobile testing teams have been invaluable in reaching out to marginalised communities in the countryside, where many people don’t have health insurance.
As coronavirus cases and deaths continue to surge across Europe, collective efforts are more important than ever to disrupt transmission chains and save lives. The partnership between the European Commission and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has been instrumental in providing support to health authorities and curbing the spread of COVID-19.
| Press release
Red Cross Red Crescent sounds the alarm over deadly combination of heat and COVID-19
Budapest/Geneva, 18 June 2021 – A looming heatwave in parts of Europe poses a deadly threat to the most vulnerable in our society, and action is urgently needed to protect them, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
According to European meteorological offices, Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Sweden can expect temperatures above 30°C this weekend. In Berlin, they may climb up to 35°C, which is 13°C higher than the average in this time of year.
Dr Davron Mukhamadiev, IFRC Regional Health and Care Coordinator for Europe, said:
“The double risk of heat and COVID-19 will be particularly dangerous for our most vulnerable – homeless, migrants, older people, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions. As temperatures soar, these people are at heightened risk. It is crucial for governments and civil society to increase support for them. Lives are at stake.”
Heatwaves are the deadliest type of disaster in the Europe region. Increasingly common, they can aggravate pre-existing conditions and cause serious health problems.
According to the latest edition of IFRC’s World Disasters Report, published in November, three heatwaves affecting Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in 2019 caused more than 3,400 deaths.
In 2020, risks associated with these extreme weather events were compounded by COVID-19. While there is a perception that we are at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, every day in Europe more than 52,000 new COVID-19 casesare detected and 1,200 people die on average.
Dr Mukhamadiev highlighted that IFRC is supporting National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies across Europe to expand their services during the warmest months, including providing first aid, helping people access health services and checking in on isolated and at-risk people.
“French Red Cross is assisting the homeless, while Belgian Red Cross is vaccinating people living in the streets or in informal settlements as well as undocumented migrants. Austrian Red Cross is opening up cooling centres in cities, and the Netherlands Red Cross is visiting thousands of older people to share life-saving tips about staying cool and safe,” he explained.
Experts are also concerned that as lockdowns ease and people grow tired of wearing masks in the heat, many will become infected and contaminate others. This, along with holiday travel, could lead to a new deadly wave across the region in autumn, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
“We cannot let our guard down. Staying cautious and following preventive measures on COVID-19 and heatwaves is more important than ever. Otherwise, health systems could again be overwhelmed and a spike in deaths may follow,” underlined Dr Mukhamadiev.
| Press release
Red Cross Red Crescent warns of the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and young people in Europe
Budapest/Geneva, 7 June 2021 – The mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching impacts for entire generations, warned the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Several studies by Red Cross and Red Crescent societies across Europe show an alarming pattern, which requires increased efforts to tackle inequity and assist those most in need.
Antónia de Barros Mota, head of Mental Health/Psychosocial Support for IFRC Europe, said:
“The mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are like invisible scars or hidden wounds. Young people and children are suffering stress, bereavement and loneliness, which can worsen as time passes. Their parents may have lost their jobs. Lockdowns and other restrictions continue to hamper their access to education, training and work.”
The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has reached a critical point recently.
Four university students took their own lives in a campus in southern France in the last quarter of 2020. French Red Cross set up a 24/7 rapid intervention team[i] to support those at risk. During the first six months they dealt with 11 students including eight who required immediate hospitalisation.
“With end of school year exams approaching, staff and volunteers are on high alert,” explained Sara Salinas, coordinator of the French Red Cross emergency service in the county.
A Spanish Red Cross study[ii] among families with young children revealed the majority now live in extreme poverty. Nearly 40 per cent are unemployed and three quarters cannot afford expenses such as glasses or hearing aids for their children. Most parents reported feeling worried or stressed, impacting their ability to emotionally support their children.
Research by Austrian Red Cross[iii] found sleep and eating disturbances among children had doubled, and that after the second lockdown in 2020, 16 per cent of children interviewed in North Tyrol (Austria) and South Tyrol (Italy) were likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Refugees and migrant children are also significantly affected by the pandemic. A Turkish Red Crescent and IFRC study[iv] found a third were unable to access online school lessons. Another study with German Red Cross in Turkey showed that when forced to stay home children displayed more behavioural problems, and traumatic memories were triggered for some.
Europe has had more than 54.6 million COVID-19 cases and 1.1 million deaths to date[v] – a third of infections and fatalities worldwide. Declining trends are promising, but the pandemic’s effects could be long-lasting.
“Authorities and civil society organizations must scale up programmes and resources to help vulnerable youth and children – including basic livelihoods assistance and tailored mental health and psychosocial support. It is crucial to promote resilience at the individual level and within society as a whole,” de Barros Mota concluded.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, IFRC and Red Cross Red Crescent societies throughout Europe have provided mental health and psychosocial support to 1.8 million people.
[iii] Silvia Exenberger; Anna Wenter; Christina Taferner; Nina Haid-Stecher; Maximilian Schickl; Barbara Juen; Kathrin Sevecke; Heidi Siller. "The experience of threat through Covid-19 in children: Gender as moderating factor" has been received by European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The submission id is: ECAP-D-21-00298, May 2021
Austrian Red Cross
12 months of coronavirus in Europe
… in this together, with Red Cross Red Crescent
By Susan Cullinan, IFRC
The moment the first coronavirus case was reported in Europe – on 24 January 2020, in Bordeaux, France - no one could have possibly imagined the monumental scale of the year of loss and struggle ahead.
Nor could they have foreseen how Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies stepped up their activities across Europe and Central Asia, enabling them to be at the heart of the response.
Staff and volunteers from the movement have been running first aid tents, delivering critical supplies to the elderly, caring for the sick and dying, at the end of the phone for people unable to leave home. They’ve provided food, shelter, a kind word and a friendly face, supported those who fall through the cracks – the migrants, people on the move, people who are homeless. They’ve provided trusted information.
The numbers are staggering.
More than 12.5 million people across the region have received food and other material aid from Red Cross Red Crescent. More than 2.8 million people have received direct cash or voucher assistance and 1.3 million more received psychosocial support to help them through the tough times.
Red Cross Red Crescent ambulances carried more than 325,000 COVID-19 patients to hospitals. Accurate information was shared to help inform people about the virus and how to stay safe, and an estimated 60 million people in the region have been reached with this messaging.
The breathtaking spread of the virus
With Italy the centre of the first wave, and the first country to go into lockdown, it remained the hardest hit country in Europe for months. Italian Red Cross was the first National Society in Europe to deliver food and medicine to people in quarantine, and ramped up their ambulance service to cope with the escalating number of people infected.
By March Europe was the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that on 18 March more than 250 million people were in lockdown in Europe. And now, nearly 12 months after the first case, sadly by 19 January 2021, 30.8 million cases were confirmed and 674,00 people in the region had died. 
The Red Cross Red Crescent response needed to be swift. On 30 January the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and the following day the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) allocated funds for a Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) and a preliminary Emergency Appeal. With its long experience in health emergencies it anticipated COVID-19 could develop into a pandemic with a devastating humanitarian impact and sadly it has shaped up to be one of the world’s most challenging crises, affecting every corner of the region with everyone vulnerable to contracting this virus.
In line with Red Cross Red Crescent’s unique role as auxiliary to government, and as a community-based and widely-trusted organization, in Europe region the Red Cross movement came up with innovative responses. The Austrian Red Cross developed a contact tracing app. British Red Cross surveyed people on their loneliness and pivoted to provide extra support for those newly alone. The Czech Red Cross trained volunteers to work in hospitals that had become overwhelmed. The Turkish Red Crescent researched people’s knowledge and attitudes towards the virus and pivoted to fill the gaps they discovered. Swedish volunteers helped children with their homework. The Red Crosses of the countries of Italy, Slovenia and Croatia worked together to get supplies across their borders to people in an isolated part of Croatia. Extra support was given to people with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia whose treatment was disrupted by the pandemic.
With the rapid surge in prevention activity, while case numbers grew at an alarming rate, by the end of Spring the situation had improved somewhat.
By summer as numbers plateaued government restrictions relaxed. The movement urged people to stay the course and maintain prevention measures in the face of pandemic fatigue and a sense the worst was behind us.
Sadly conditions deteriorated, leading to a second wave. From late July case and death numbers steadily worsened again. By October, the Europe region accounted for the greatest proportion of reported new cases globally, with over 1.3 million new cases in the last week of October, a 33% leap in cases in a week.
The national societies doubled down. Many had by now switched to remote and on-line support, however 23 National Societies continued to deliver COVID-safe clinical and paramedical services, including those in Germany, Italy, Israel, Spain and the UK. As well they ran quarantine and testing stations, triage facilities and outpatient fever clinics to support the public emergency medical service, and provided mobile care services.
Some National Societies also supported experimental treatments by collecting plasma from patients who recovered from COVID-19 and had antibodies, and in turn provided this plasma to hospitals to treat very sick patients. Countless training and guidance sessions for staff and volunteers on COVID-19 were helped across the region, on the proper use of personal protective equipment and ambulances cleaning and disinfection.
Vaccines – a potential game changer
By the start of December, the future started to look brighter. Countries started to plan for the possible arrival of vaccines, but this was taking place against a background of a relentless resurgence in the number of people infected with COVID-19. In the WHO Europe region, there had been more than 4 million new cases in November alone, with the region accounting for 40 % of new global cases and 50% of new global deaths. 
The vaccine results have come to be seen a large part of the solutions to containing the virus, but it has brought with it the challenge of countering misinformation and building trust in vaccines, as well as managing expectations that they will bring about a quick end to the pandemic. IFRC has supported local efforts to educate communities about their safety and efficacy.
Those hardest hit
In January more evidence came to light of the disproportionate impact the coronavirus was having on older people when the IFRC’s Europe office published the results of a survey which found older people had become sicker, poorer and more alone as a result of the pandemic. It added to a growing body of evidence that coronavirus had harmed the poor and most vulnerable the most, pushing millions more into poverty.  Sadly, migrants were also identified in new IFRC research as those least protected and most affected by the pandemic. 
And now, as we enter the start of the second year of the pandemic under ongoing harsh lockdowns, many countries are starting to see cases stabilise and even reduce.
This emergency has had significant challenges, including global flows of misinformation and disinformation, response fatigue and system-wide impacts of multiple waves of cases. The Red Cross Red Crescent movement is well-placed to do its part in the regional response given its extensive history with disease outbreak.
And planners in the movement acknowledge that vaccines will not be the silver bullet to end this pandemic alone. Red Cross will continue to work with communities to ensure they are informed about the virus, how it spreads and what to do to keep safe. It’s continuing to advocate for tracing and isolation of people who are ill as a central part of the response. To keep in the fight against COVID-19, the entire population must stick to the preventative measures which have been proven to help stop the spread of the virus – even as a vaccine becomes more widely available.
| Press release
Red Cross expands COVID-19 testing in seven countries with €35.5 million EU support
Budapest/Geneva, 19 November 2020 – As Europe continues to experience a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths, the Red Cross will scale up COVID-19 testing with the announcement of a €35.5 million European Commission partnership.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has signed an agreement with the European Commission, financed by the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI), which will see COVID-19 testing carried out by National Red Cross Societies in Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.
Across Europe, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are scaling up their support to embattled national health systems. The European Commission’s funding will support staff training and allow access to equipment, lab items and reagents to take samples and perform PCR and rapid antigen tests in support of national health authorities’ work.
IFRC Europe Regional Director, Birgitte Ebbesen, said that hundreds of thousands of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in Europe and Central Asia are working tirelessly to curb the spread of the pandemic.
“We are truly grateful for this contribution, which allows an even stronger European Red Cross and Red Crescent engagement. Our volunteers are already working around the clock to keep their local communities safe and healthy.
“Besides COVID-19 testing, they are also assisting with transporting patients, volunteering in hospitals and health centres where medical personnel are sick or isolating and providing home care services and psychosocial support for vulnerable people. We are deeply grateful for their dedication and selfless work.”
Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety said: “Testing tells us what the extent of the spread is, where it is, and how it develops. It is a decisive tool to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
“Being efficient on testing also requires having the necessary resources, which is why we are stepping up our support to increase Member States’ testing capacity. Support and solidarity are key to overcome this pandemic,” she added.