By Aggrey Nyondwa Kikobera
As he grapples with his 4WD Landcruiser across a rugged deep trench in Bidibidi, through his mask, Musa Rothomio, a World Vision Driver, speaks of how dramatic life and his job have been since the outbreak of COVID-19. He says he has not seen his family since January, because of the nature of his job. Restrictions on movement across the country, have made it difficult for him to see his pregnant wife, and daughter.
Musa works with the World Vision Food Assistance Team in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The team had to stay on ground and distribute food to the refugees, throughout the lockdown period.
“Food is a key necessity and I needed to stay and support the team, so that we continue feeding these vulnerable communities,” Musa says.
“Refugees are already vulnerable people, and COVID-19 has just made the situation a lot worse for them. We had to stay and support them through this difficult time,” He adds.
In Musa’s tone, you can feel the determination and resilience of the thousands of humanitarian workers, from over 2,000 agencies in Uganda. The courage to leave behind their families in a difficult season, in order to serve vulnerable communities at the frontline of a pandemic, that has killed over half a million people worldwide, should be hailed. It is this relentless effort of aid agencies and their staff, that has made the spread and impact of COVID-19 less catastrophic, especially in fragile contexts.
Since its outbreak at the dead end of 2019, Coronavirus has left the world in havoc, turning every aspect of life upside down. Travel, finance, education, religion, and worship have not been spared. It has been total chaos that could only be combatted by concerted efforts.
Scientists, health workers, armed forces, bureaucrats, academia, the UN, and all Aid and development agencies, have had a big part to play in this fight. The overwhelming vastness of the COVID-19 outbreak, could not have been effectively neutralized, without such efforts.
In Uganda, NGOs and UN agencies working with the government and local communities, have designed special programmes to address the spread of the virus. This has been through awareness and information dissemination campaigns. They have also come up with innovative ways to overcome the short and long-term impacts of the disease.
World Vision, a Christian humanitarian agency, has supported over One Million individuals in Uganda, including 403,472 children.
“Our COVID-19 response is mainly aimed at working with government, to scale up preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus, and supporting children and families impacted by this outbreak,” says Freddie Opoka, the COVID-19 Response Director at World Vision Uganda.
“We have supported 53 districts in Uganda, through distribution of hygiene and protection equipment and items, especially to health centers and workers. We have also engaged in creating awareness about the disease and its prevention, through various mass media, and we now focus on helping communities navigate through the impacts of COVID-19, especially on education and livelihoods,” he adds.
NGOs are tapping into their wealth of knowledge from the past in dealing with health emergencies. World Vision is leveraging its vast experience from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and in DRC, and lessons learned from collaborating with local partners and faith leaders, to broadcast messages of hope and awareness. Over 1500 faith leaders have been engaged by the aid agency in Uganda. This has greatly brought down the level of sexual and gender-based violence, against women and children in Eastern Uganda, during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The UN Refugee agency-UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP), have ensured that people in refugee settlements, are not hard hit by the outbreak or its effects. In March, World Vision warned that the mortality rates for COVID-19 could be unprecedented, in vulnerable communities and fragile contexts like refugee settlements. The organization asked that countries hosting high numbers of refugees, be given special and urgent support. This is because the impact the pandemic could have on these countries, would be far greater. Indeed, refugee communities suffered the effects of the lockdown most, compared to the rest of the country. A number of them were stranded across the border, where they usually go to fend for their families. Hundreds lost jobs and livelihoods, and over 800,000 refugee children are out of school-a place they considered as a source of comfort and play, and sometimes a morning meal.
WFP, through their partners, ensured that food distribution continued in the settlement. New measures at the food distribution points were introduced. These included temperature checks, social distancing, and hand washing points. The biometric fingerprint scanner, was replaced with a mobile app, that scans beneficiaries’ cards from a distance.
In May, the World Food Programme introduced the double food ration. This meant that refugees were to receive food for May and June, in one go. They also introduced the pre-packaging system, which requires food to be pre-packed for pickup by the beneficiaries, without the usual long processes that would increase the risk.
“WFP and partners agreed that giving double food rations, will reduce people contact, during the food distribution process. People will be coming to the distribution point only once in two months to get food, which we think is a good preventive measure,” said Stella Maris Lunyolo, a Field Coordinator at Yoyo I Food Distribution Point.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) embarked on production and distribution of masks, for over 230,000 refugees aged six years and above, in Adjumani and Lamwo district. This was in an effort to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. The refugee agency has also extended special support to refugee households, through distribution of radio sets for home-learning children, soap, and other essential none food items.
DanChurchAid, a faith based organisation, has distributed cash to over 5,000 people in refugee and host communities in Arua, Yumbe and Lamwo. This was in a bid to help them cope with the effects of COVID-19.
World Vision mobilized and trained children and adult volunteers, to go through the settlements using megaphones and public address systems, to highlight the importance of hand washing and social distancing. Community leaders were also engaged and hosted on local radio talk shows, to encourage community members to adhere to the set guidelines. The aid agency also trained Youth Journalists to spread news stories about COVID-19, through social media and creative rap music, which is played at food distribution points.
Children have continued learning by listening to radio lessons provided by the government. Parents have also taken advantage of a World Vision-UNICEF funded project, that taught them how to produce basic toys using local materials like clay, which they have used to fashion things such as letters of the alphabet and figurines. For children who have fled brutal conflict in South Sudan, connecting with others to learn and play, is central to their healing.
“Psychosocial support has to continue even in the lockdown, and we are encouraging parents to develop play materials especially for indoor games, since children cannot access structured play materials at the Child Friendly Spaces. Homes must be friendly enough for children not to be stressed and traumatised, and this can be achieved through play,” says Dilis Alele, the World Vision Child Protection Facilitator in Imvepi Refugee Settlement.
It is this unique approach by the various NGOs, that has made their work and contribution so effective in this fight. Community engagement, effective collaboration, child participation, and a vast amount of experience and sacrifice from the humanitarian sector has been key in the battle against COVID-19.
Aggrey Nyondwa Kikobera is Emergency Communications Expert.
Follow him on Twitter @AggreyNyondwa