The COVID-19 pandemic is universally referred to as a crisis. “Crisis”, specifically “humanitarian crisis”, is a fundamental concept for humanitarian actors. Not all disasters are crises, but when response and coping capacities are surpassed, they can lead to crises or themselves be defined as crises. For the time period 2005-2018, which is the period covered by our document collection, the Syria and Ebola crises, respectively caused by an armed conflict and a disease outbreak, are the most cited humanitarian crises. Refugee, protracted, food, political and economic crises are also key types of crisis frequently mentioned in our document collection that engage humanitarians across the world. Specific areas, zones, contexts and situations can all be characterised as being in crisis. Crisis response, prevention, action and management point to specific stages and types of interventions required in humanitarian settings.

With around 5,000 occurrences in total, the term “crisis” is one of the most frequently appearing COVID-19 related concepts in our document collection. Moreover, the term has appeared with increasing frequency over time (see chart below). An indication of this increased frequency can be found in the Sphere Project Handbook, the reference guide for humanitarian standards. Whereas crisis appeared in the 2011 version just 34 times, it appeared 378 times in the 2018 handbook. Increased frequency in the document collection reflects the findings of an analysis from UN OCHA, which show an increase in the number and duration of international humanitarian crises in past decades. 

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Please note: The overview on this page represents a first summary and exploratory analysis of the concept, proposed by the HE core team for discussion, on the basis of preliminary linguistic data. It is not the full concept entry which will be based on rigorous linguistic methodology and collaboration with humanitarian practitioners and experts.

Coming soon: Expanded concept explanations, visualisations and analysis for this and 17 other COVID-19 related concepts.

“Crisis” occurs with consistently high frequency since 2014, compared to earlier years where its frequency fluctuated. This may suggest more crises in recent years, for example due to increased unrest and conflict or more frequent natural disasters in a changing climate. However, it may also suggest a growing tendency to refer to events as crises. 2009 also shows high frequency of crisis, which may be associated with the also high frequency of global financial crisis and an interest at that time in understanding the impacts of the financial crisis on humanitarian contexts, in terms of local effects as well as donor states’ capacity to fund international assistance.

“Crisis” appears more frequently in documents published in Europe and North America compared to Africa, Asia and Middle East North Africa regions. This may point to differing perceptions of crisis in countries that receive international humanitarian assistance, compared to those who fund and deliver it.

The Overseas Development Institute Humanitarian Policy Network Humanitarian Exchange Magazines, which feature strongly in the corporations/business category (which includes think tanks), have directly mentioned the word “crisis” in the issue title of 16 of the 77 issues published, most recently “The Crisis in Yemen” (Issue 76, 2020). The Sphere Project, which dominates projects category, mentions “crisis” or “crises” 378 times in the 2018 Handbook (0.83 times per page), compared to only 34 times in the 2011 Handbook (0.17 times per page).

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