, 21 March, 2020 / 3:45 AM
With at least 36 African countries having collectively reported more than 700 COVID-19 cases, Catholic aid agencies with presence in the world’s second largest continent are collaborating in the effort to stop the spread of the deadly virus, which WHO recently declared a pandemic.
The international humanitarian arm of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has so far initiated COVID-19 responses in over 15 countries around the globe and are prepared to rapidly scale up to meet new needs or make appropriate adjustments, an official has told ACI Africa.
“This includes assisting government and faith-based health systems to increase capacity, hygiene promotion and the provision of essential protection supplies to health workers and community mobilizers,” CRS Global Marketing and Communications Manager, Michael Stulman told ACI Africa in an interview Friday, March 20.
With seven cases of the new coronavirus confirmed in the East African nation of Kenya, CRS 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,” Mr. Stulman said.
“Through the USAID Core Group Polio Project, CRS works in Nairobi on community-based disease surveillance and maintains strong ties with the community health workforce and county health management teams,” Mr. Stulman has shared with ACI Africa and added, “Building on these relationships, and with supplemental private funding from CRS, we are supporting the Ministry of Health to implement COVID-19 prevention and response activities.”
The goal, the Senegal-based professional says, “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.”
Mr. Stulman revealed that between March 16 and 20, the US-based aid agency supported the training of 30 Nairobi county health management team members and 70 Nairobi sub-county health management team members.
The expertise learned in these trainings is being passed on to another 250 frontline health care workers and 500 community health volunteers representing all 10 Nairobi sub-counties, the CRS official told ACI Africa.
With hygiene being central in fighting the spread of COVID-19, the communication expert revealed that the Kenyan entity of his organization, CRS Kenya, is adapting some of its programming to incorporate critical hand-washing and hygiene messages.
“This includes its MWENDO program, a USAID-funded project that supports orphans, vulnerable children and children impacted by HIV/AIDS in 17 counties,” Mr. Stulman said and added, “CRS is now distributing basic sanitation materials to a prioritized set of the most vulnerable families we serve.”
In Ethiopia where there are six confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, 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,” Mr. Stulman told ACI Africa during the March 20 interview.
The focus of these efforts, he explained, is on capacity building, training, and effective oversight of prevention and mitigation including the provision of gloves, aprons, masks, sanitizers and other hygienic materials.
“In several other African countries – including Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Madagascar and Uganda, CRS is focused on improving water, sanitation and hygiene within health facilities, and identifying ways these critical programs can also be a source of increasing capacity to deal with the COVID-19,” Mr. Stulman said.
The CRS official raised concerns over the spread of the deadly virus in African countries saying, “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. The level of vulnerability is especially high for uprooted and refugee populations, as well as extremely poor families and communities — people who have little to no safety net.”
He added, “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.”
Meanwhile, plans are underway for Trocaire, the overseas aid agency of the Catholic Bishops of Ireland, to join in the fight against COVID-19 in Africa.
“We are working in the affected parts of DR Congo. A lot of what we do is about providing hygiene and encouraging a change in social norms,” Trocaire’s Communications Officer, Ciaran Gallagher told ACI Africa in an interview Thursday, March 19.
He added in reference to initiatives to bring about a change of unhealthy social norms, “In DR Congo that can mean getting people to stop touching dead bodies, stop hunting wild animals and encouraging hand washing.”
He further said, “We are speaking with local partners to see how we can help prevent the Coronavirus spreading. That will mean funding public health messages and providing water and soap.”
Despite the experience of fighting disease outbreaks such as Ebola, Mr. Gallagher noted that “COVID-19 is different from other response work; it is not isolated to one region or country. Every country is at risk so we have to manage that risk across all countries we work in.”
According to the Trocaire official, “The big fear is that the virus is being under-reported in many African countries. Places like South Sudan, for example, have no cases, but that may be because they have no ability to test.”
To protect Trocaire’s staff operating in more than 20 developing countries in the world, 11 of them being in Africa, the Ireland-based communications officer told ACI Africa, “We have cancelled all travel. Ireland has higher rates of infection than the countries we work in. What we don’t want to do is risk spreading the virus.”
However, to ensure that the Ireland-based humanitarian agency remains responsive to the needs of the people it serves, Mr. Gallagher revealed that though a travel ban has been put in place for the agency’s staff, essential travel is exempted from the ban.
Addressing a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland on March 18, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that COVID-19 spread in Africa could be disastrous saying, “Africa should wake up; in other countries we have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain tipping point."
Burkina Faso became the first sub-Saharan Africa country to record a COVID-19 death.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa