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A health worker squeezes a dose of Vitamin A into a small child's mouth
What We Do

COVID-19: Safeguarding vulnerable families

An escalating crisis

In many parts of the world, including China, Europe, and the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed clinical services and brought economies to a standstill. In the majority of countries in Africa and Asia where Helen Keller International works, there have been far fewer cases of the virus reported; however, a series of ripple effects from the pandemic are putting lives and livelihoods at dire risk in these areas. For the vulnerable families we serve, the COVID-19 crisis is being felt in the form of severe food shortages, reduced income and limited access to health care. As a result, millions of children and adults are at risk of hunger, malnutrition and other serious health problems, threatening decades of lifesaving progress.

Adapting to a new landscape

Helen Keller International provides sight- and life-saving preventive health services to tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia, as well as vision care in the United States. Our services are focused on people who are most vulnerable: young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, veterans, homeless people, subsistence farmers, and communities suffering from diseases of poverty, including preventable blindness and malnutrition.

In the early months of the pandemic, approximately 60 percent of our programming was paused or slowed as we adapted to local restrictions on movement and adopted new safety protocols. For example, campaigns to treat neglected tropical diseases and provide vitamin A supplements were postponed in Africa, and thousands of children with impaired vision around the United States were forced to go without the eyeglasses that they need to complete their schoolwork from home. In short, the pandemic not only created new problems and risks – it exacerbated existing ones.

Since then, with lockdowns lifted in many places and new safeguards in place to protect our staff and the families we serve, we have been able to restart nearly all of our essential programming.

Our priorities

We are currently focused on addressing three imminent dangers posed by the pandemic: the COVID-19 disease itself, other diseases, and hunger.

Stopping disease

We are communicating with millions of people in communities throughout Africa and Asia about steps that individuals and households can take to minimize their risk of contracting coronavirus and other communicable diseases. Where possible, we are doing so through our vast network of community health workers.

For example, in Nepal, a country with high rates of mobile phone ownership, we are using phone calls, texts, and social media to reach hundreds of thousands of households.

Hand washing stands in Senegal

We are also supporting the provision of basic water infrastructure. People cannot take measures to wash their hands frequently if they do not have the means to do so. We are installing thousands of handwashing stands and providing soap in such countries as Mali, Niger, and Senegal.

Maintaining essential services

We are placing special focus on vitamin A supplementation, an intervention that Helen Keller International has pioneered, and that has saved millions of lives in the past 40 years. To protect populations from the potentially catastrophic impact of exposure to COVID-19, we must minimize large gatherings and close contact. So, as an alternative to mass vitamin A supplementation campaigns, we are distributing this life-saving micronutrient door-to-door and working to ensure that children who come to health care facilities for other services can also receive vitamin A supplementation.

Preventing malnutrition

We have compelling evidence that the coronavirus outbreak is already impacting the economic well-being and food supply of millions of people in the countries where we work. We are taking a diverse, comprehensive range of actions, adapted to each context. In Cameroon and Bangladesh, for example, we are distributing food and cash vouchers. In Senegal, we are expanding an existing program that targets malnutrition among children to serve entire communities with locally-produced enriched foods. In Mozambique, we are providing farmers with seeds and training so that they can increase their food supply.

Community-driven research and innovation

In keeping with our longstanding commitment to scientific rigor, we are conducting research studies to ensure that our response is in line with evolving local needs. We are well-placed in the communities where we work to carry out data collection, from conducting opinion surveys to tracking food supplies. Our strong relationships with governments and partners mean that we are also well-equipped to ensure that officials making decisions have good information about what is happening on the ground.

Staff safety

We take safety very seriously. Protecting our staff from contracting the virus and amplifying the pandemic is paramount for ensuring the continuity of our work. We cannot sustainably or ethically continue our work if we do not ensure the safety and health of the people doing it, particularly those risking their lives at the front lines such as our community liaisons and drivers. There is no such thing as no risk, and we have a responsibility to minimize the risks with basic measures, and to balance any risk with public health benefit. To this end we have implemented new safety guidelines, protective behaviors and norms, rapidly adapting our offices, program sites and the way we work to protect Helen Keller staff and the communities we serve. Additional efforts include provision and training on proper use of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 training and education awareness to ensure our staff understand and have the right information about COVID-19. Last but not least, we are supporting and encouraging staff self-care and well-being during this unprecedented time.

Our approach

Like many of our partners, including the United Nations, major donors, and governments in Africa and Asia, we recognize the need to simultaneously contain the virus and address its economic, health, and nutritional consequences.

Our response strategy and activities encompass a second aim as well: to leverage our well-established two-way communication between health workers and communities in order to avoid common mistakes, as well as to identify and fill emerging gaps in the global COVID-19 response.

For example, with our ears always to the ground, listening to people’s needs, we learned early in the coronavirus outbreak that women in Nepal were frightened about the possibility of spreading the virus through breastfeeding. So our team of community health workers made sure to get the word out quickly that the virus is not spread in that way and that new moms should breastfeed, if they are able, to keep their babies healthy.

We believe that scientific knowledge about the coronavirus as provided by experts is vital, but so is knowledge about the local context and how it could impact the virus’s spread. Both must be considered when developing public health strategies and messages.

As the story from Nepal illustrates, and our decades of experience tell us, the most effective community-level public health efforts come not from the rank of well-known experts, but from the communities under siege. That is why we value working hand-in-hand with community partners as much as we value collaborating with national and global entities like ministries of health and the World Health Organization. A multi-level approach will be not only the most effective, but also the most respectful, way to protect the people who are most vulnerable.

A young girl uses a hands-free device to pour water for washing her hands.

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