In their words: community health workers fight Covid-19
Our staff in East Africa share their experiences working on the frontline during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jun 9 2020
When a mother in Tanzania wants to improve their child’s diet, they turn to a community health volunteer. When a child in Kenya gets diarrhoea, a community health worker is often the first person a parent calls. And when people in Somalia want to learn how to detect malnutrition in their children, a health worker trains them.
Community health workers are a lifeline in some of the world’s most remote places, where thousands of children often go hungry. As Covid-19 spreads, the number of hungry people in the world is set to double – making health care workers' job more vital than ever.
Despite restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing, community health workers are finding ways to promote healthy behaviours, help families prevent malnutrition and disease, and treat children with life-threatening health conditions. In some cases, where a lack of personal protective equipment and fears of contracting the virus have kept community health workers at home, they have been continuing their work but reaching out to families and offering support by phone.
We asked some Action Against Hunger community health workers and volunteers in East Africa what it’s like to be on the frontlines in the midst of a pandemic. Hear what they had to say below.
Staying safe on the frontline
Bhakita, a community health worker in South Sudan.
We have put in place a variety of measures in our health centres to ensure our life-saving health and nutrition programmes can continue safely. This includes changes to working hours and days to reduce crowds, different nutrition treatment rationing to reduce the number of visits needed, social distancing within waiting areas, new handwashing stations in and around the facilities, and providing protective equipment to health staff.
“Outpatient nutrition services have changed from weekly to biweekly basis, and the rations given out in supplementary feeding services have changed from biweekly to monthly to prevent overcrowding at the distribution sites,” says Bhakita, a health worker in Wanyjok, South Sudan.
“Social distancing must be followed at the health facilities to avoid overcrowding,” says Victor who works in Uganda. “So the number of days have been reduced.”
How life has changed in their communities
The United Nations predicts the Covid-19 pandemic could cause acute hunger to nearly double by the end of the year. Already, community health workers have seen the impact of travel restrictions and the global economic crisis in the villages where they live and work.
“The price of basic commodities, such as salt and even soap, has gone up. The lockdown and border closing have caused a shortage of items in the market,” explains Andrea, a health worker in Malualkon, South Sudan.
Victor, a community health worker in Uganda.
Some have seen transportation costs increasing, resulting in delays in food shipments. Others report that markets are closed because they don’t have basic food items or other products available. In Uganda, for example, limited funding and availability of food have already forced the World Food Programme to cut back on the monthly food rations provided to refugees. “Before, an individual would get 12kg cereal for one month. Now they are getting 8.8kg,” says Victor who works in Yumbe, Uganda.
How Community health workers are responding to Covid-19
Community health workers are a lifeline to so many families. They are community mobilisers, educators, and trusted residents of the areas they serve. To prevent the spread of Covid-19, they’re sharing essential information and messages about health and hygiene, as well as social distancing. Without them, the communities they serve wouldn’t have access to this information.
Selina, a community health worker in Kenya.
“Our communities need us – we are their TVs and radio,” says Selina, from Kenya. “They have no other way to get this information. Once we hear something on the radio, we keep them informed on what the government has instructed, like wearing masks.”
“We are raising awareness on Covid-19 using megaphones and by playing audio messages that have been translated to local language as we distribute supplies in displacement camps,” explains Abdulwas in Gambella, Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, we're collaborating with government officials to ensure that health workers and nutrition officers at our nutrition treatment centres are trained in how to prevent Covid-19, and what to do if they encounter a suspected case. In refugee camps, community health volunteers are the backbone of our outreach work. They are ensuring that severely malnourished children are identified and treated, and that lifesaving services continue to be delivered.
Making home visits
“As I volunteer, I fear for my life. I don’t know who has the virus, so it’s difficult to support anyone,” explains Samuel. “Now, we go to homes once a week due to the fear of coronavirus. The other day I got a call because a child had diarrhoea – I went and helped them very quickly. For the rest we make phone calls.”
Elizabeth, a community volunteer from Tanzania.
Elizabeth, a community volunteer in Mpwapwa, Tanzania describes how the coronavirus has made her adapt the way she works. “Life has changed – we no longer do things like we used to, such as household visits, and we have to sit far from each other. This has affected our service to the community because everyone lives in fear.”
How can we help community health workers?
Gatkek, a community health worker from Ethiopia.
To serve their communities safely during this pandemic, community health workers need information, training, and protective equipment. They also need mental health support. Health workers are dealing with new work schedules, increased caseloads due to heightened needs in the community, and the added stresses of potential exposure to the virus and the stigmas and fears associated with it.
“When we are together as volunteers, we help each other,” says Selina. “We need masks, soap, sanitiser, water – when we train the community, it’s good to have these items so people see and believe what we're saying.”
“We walk long distances, so we need a bicycle to help with movement, as well as boots and raincoats, because it has been raining.” Explains Bhakita.
“We need communication materials such as megaphones, t-shirts for visibility to do community education, protective items, and pens and books to record feedback and data,” says Victor.
Across East Africa and in many other areas of the world, community health workers play a vital role in the health of children and their families. Now, with the threat of Covid-19 spreading, their roles in the communities they serve is more important than ever.
It will be a tough journey ahead but we’re committed to supporting our community health workers all around the world, to enable them to continue to save lives of children everywhere. Hunger doesn’t stop for a pandemic, and neither do our community health workers.
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