Safeguarding the most vulnerable: Our COVID-19 response
An escalating pandemic
In many parts of the world, including China, Europe, and the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed clinical services and brought economies to a standstill. In the countries in Africa and Asia where Helen Keller International works, there were relatively fewer cases reported as of early May; however, if the epidemic does spread, the consequences are likely to be even more severe – and possibly catastrophic. Fatalities will be higher not only because health facilities and equipment to treat COVID-19 patients are much more limited, but also because services to prevent other diseases will be disrupted, and more children will become malnourished.
Indeed, this is already happening. Life-saving interventions such as vitamin A supplementation and treatment for malaria, which have helped reduce by half the number of child deaths in the last 30 years, are already being disrupted. Furthermore, food supplies have begun to diminish across Africa and Asia.
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 schools and shelters 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.
Our work is already being affected by the pandemic; approximately 60 percent of programming has been paused or slowed. For example, campaigns to treat neglected tropical diseases and provide vitamin A supplements have been postponed in Africa, and thousands of children with impaired vision around the United States are going without the eyeglasses that they need to complete their schoolwork from home. In short, the pandemic is not only creating new problems and risks – it is also exacerbating existing ones.
We are currently focused on addressing three imminent dangers posed by the pandemic: the COVID-19 disease itself, other diseases, and hunger.
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 more than 600,000 people.
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, mass vitamin A supplementation campaigns are being postponed. However, this disruption puts hundreds of thousands of already vulnerable children at even greater risk for disease. Where possible, we are using other means to distribute this life-saving micronutrient. For example, we are working to ensure that children who come to health care facilities for other services can also receive vitamin A supplementation while there, as long as this is safe locally.
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 planning several 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.
We take staff 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 are implementing 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.
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.
Donate now to provide vulnerable families around the world with the essential resources and information they need to protect themselves in the face of crisis – and beyond.