YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Strained health systems, access to clean water and limited hygiene supplies are some of the challenges facing East Africa as it prepares to face the coronavirus pandemic, according to a representative of Catholic Relief Services.
So far, at least 40 people have died from the disease across the African continent, and over 1400 cases have been confirmed. However, the true number of cases is certainly higher, and if the rest of the world is a guide, the disease will spread rapidly through the region.
Making matters worse, before the COVID-19 coronavirus hit East Africa, the region had been ravaged by the worst locust infestation in 70 years.
“The pandemic is going to put an additional strain on already scarce resources. When you look at the teams that are already going out to battle the locusts, they’re going to areas where now additional precautions are going to need to be taken because of the threat of the coronavirus,” said Lane Bunkers, the Kenya country representative at Catholic Relief Services, the international development arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
He told Crux CRS is preparing to “rapidly scale up” to meet the challenges the coronavirus will pose to the region.
“This includes assisting government and faith-based health systems to increase capacity, hygiene promotion and the provision essential protection supplies to health workers and community mobilizers,” Bunkers said. “In addition, CRS works closely with the global Caritas network to assist communities to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus and to strengthen local health systems.”
What follows are excerpts of his conversation with Crux.
Crux: East Africa is already being ravaged by the worst infestation of desert locusts in 70 years. How does the coronavirus pandemic worsen an already precarious humanitarian situation?
Bunkers: The pandemic is going to put an additional strain on already scarce resources. When you look at the teams that are already going out to battle the locusts, they’re going to areas where now additional precautions are going to need to be taken because of the threat of the coronavirus. A lot of the protective gear that is needed for those on the frontlines responding to the coronavirus threat are similar to what are needed for workers trying to control the locusts as well.
How has CRS been responding to the pandemic, and what is the level of coordination with regional governments and other NGOs?
In East Africa, Catholic Relief Services is working closely with national governments, local governments, health ministries, Caritas partners and other local partners to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In Kenya, Catholic Relief Services has a strong combination of current and planned COVID-19 interventions, which are being pursued jointly with the Government of Kenya’s rapid response team. Last week and Monday, CRS supported the Ministry of Health to implement COVID-19 prevention and response activities in and around Nairobi.
The goal is to improve the ability of health facilities and community-based health workers to achieve early detection, isolation and contact tracing of COVID-19 cases. CRS supported training for 30 Nairobi county health management team members and 70 Nairobi sub-county health management team members. The expertise learned in these trainings is then being passed onto another 250 frontline health care workers and 500 community health volunteers representing all 10 Nairobi sub-counties. In addition, CRS is providing handwashing stations and disseminating educational materials.
In Ethiopia, CRS is prioritizing efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through close partnerships with the Ministry of Health, local government, Missionaries of Charity, Ethiopian Catholic Church institutions (including Catholic hospitals, health centers, clinics, care centers and schools), and other local partners. The focus of these efforts is on capacity strengthening, trainings, and effective oversight of prevention and mitigation including the provision of gloves, aprons, masks, sanitizers and other hygienic materials.
Across the region, CRS is focused on improving water, sanitation and hygiene in the communities where we work and in health facilities. CRS is prepared to rapidly scale up to meet new needs or make appropriate adjustments as needed. This includes assisting government and faith-based health systems to increase capacity, hygiene promotion and the provision essential protection supplies to health workers and community mobilizers. In addition, CRS works closely with the global Caritas network to assist communities to prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus and to strengthen local health systems.
What have been the obstacles?
Travel restrictions, school closures and bans on gatherings have affected some of our programs, for example, but we are adapting our work as best we can and trying to work within the rules laid out in the countries where we work. Our teams are working to adjust programs so we can continue to provide critical support while adhering to very necessary safety precautions. We are also looking at ways we can integrate relevant health and safety messaging into existing programs.
The shortage of personal protective equipment available in-country in Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa is a significant challenge. Even if organizations have the funds to purchase personal protective equipment, the limited availability makes it almost impossible to acquire in a number of countries.
How do you strike the balance between responding to the pandemic and keeping your staff out of harm’s way?
Of course, the safety of our staff is of utmost importance. In some countries, CRS staff have begun working from home. Those who are still engaged in any in-country travel are encouraged to practice social distancing, wash their hands regularly and take other measures. We’re advising staff on proper health and sanitation precautions and communicating with staff regularly as the situation changes – adjusting along the way.
There are always concerns that as shops and businesses close down, and as economies come grinding to a halt, that desperation can set in and potentially spark other security issues for those who are on the ground trying to respond to the crisis.
Going forward, how do you plan to cope with a potential escalation of the pandemic in East Africa?
The growing number of cases in fragile states is extremely concerning, as health systems are strained and people’s access to clean water and hygiene supplies is limited. Relatively speaking, poorer countries are going to be far more challenged simply because they don’t have the resources to respond to a public health crisis such as this.
The level of vulnerability is especially high for uprooted and refugee populations, as well as extremely poor families and communities—people who have little or no safety net. Our longstanding presence in these communities—and relationships with local health institutions, governments and organizations—has been, and will continue to be, critical to our ability to scale up quickly and address needs as they arise.
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