April 30, 2020 / 6:06 PM / 24 days ago

U.N. launches COVID-19 aid flights to vulnerable developing nations

LIEGE, Belgium (Reuters) - The U.N. World Food Program on Thursday sent a first plane loaded with medical supplies for developing nations especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to ramp up the service to 350 flights per month.

A worker preprares to load medical supplies in a cargo aircraft chartered by the U.N. World Food Programme to help developing countries hit by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Liege airport, Belgium April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

WFP chose nine airports across the world to take part in the special humanitarian air bridge, which will also feature up to 350 passenger flights per month to transport medical and humanitarian teams from early May.

A Boeing 757 cargo flight left Belgium’s Liege Airport on Thursday evening loaded with 16 tonnes of medical supplies, including masks, gloves, medicines and syringes for the West African country of Burkina Faso.

The grounding of commercial passenger flights during the pandemic has not only prevented tens of thousands of humanitarian workers from travelling but removed cargo space.

“Today (the challenge) to find cargo planes is nightmarish. Prices have gone up by four or five times,” said Amer Daoudi, WFP’s COVID-19 corporate response director. “You also might not get it today or the day after or for a week.”

So WFP, which serves as the logistics arm of the U.N. system, has locked in contracts for an extended time to ensure its flights operate and do so at a reasonable cost.

“We need capacity to service many of the fragile countries across the globe. This air bridge is going to cover almost 120 countries,” Daoudi said.

Daoudi envisages the flights will run for about three to four months, but could be extended. The airlift would be stood down if viable commercial alternatives returned.

The transport is available for all humanitarian health workers and cargoes. Thursday’s supplies were destined for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Burkina Faso.

The other hub airports are Accra, Addis Ababa, Guangzhou, Johannesburg, Panama City, Shanghai, Subang and two in Dubai.

Liege Airport, heavily focused on cargo, transported 902,480 tonnes of goods in 2019, a new record, and handled fewer than 200,000 passengers. It has a large Fedex/TNT sorting centre.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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