NGOs Pivot to COVID-19 Prevention in Refugee Camps

By Linda Eckerbom Cole
KAMPALA, Uganda, Apr 7 2020 – We are living in uncertain times. All of us are experiencing the Corona pandemic in various ways. For most it means quarantine and physical isolation. We worry about family members, loss of income and not knowing what the future will look like- or how long this will continue.

While the spread of Covid-19 across Sub-Saharan Africa is a few weeks behindwhat is happening in the US and Europe, the situation in Uganda and other east African countries has begun to shift dramatically in recent days.

A month back there were only a few cases, now the numbers are starting to increase. As a response the Ugandan government has ordered a complete shutdown of the country. International borders are closed, markets and trading no longer allowed, schools have shut, social gatherings banned, transportation has been severely restricted and only essential businesses and personnel are able to continue.

This has significant implications for AWR and all of the women in our programs. At the moment we are temporarily closing down the majority of our operations, except for some targeted agricultural activities to help ensure food security.

We are also redeploying a dedicated group of staff into Covid-19 response.

Many of the women in our programs live in remote and isolated areas. For them the biggest issue will not be fear of the virus but rather access to food. We are especially concerned about older women who are dependent on the income from trade to be able to buy food.

Children sharing a meal in Palabek Refugee Settlement camp in Northern Uganda. Close to 50,000 people from South Sudan live in close quarters in this camp. There are 11 camps in Northern Uganda, a country that hosts 1.4 million refugees. Credit: Brian Hodges for African Women Rising

Many of these women care for orphans and other dependents and the risk of hunger and malnutrition for those households is significant.

We are working together closely with local leaders as well as our staff that live in those communities to identify households that are at higher risk of vulnerability.

Our biggest worry is for all the refugees who live in the country. Northern Uganda currently hosts 1.4 million refugees. The cramped living conditions in the camps means that isolation and social distancing are next to impossible.

As of January 31, 2020, the United Nations has received only 9% of total funding needed to care for the refugees, the majority of whom have fled violence in their home countries. That means all services are under-funded.

There is a lack of food, health care, water and sanitation. A Covid-19 outbreakin these settings would be a disaster. Most of the South Sudanese refugees we work together with cannot afford soap. How to even begin talking about prevention when people are unable to wash their hands properly?

We are working together as part of a taskforce with the UN, the Ugandan government and other aid organizations to provide support, both to local communities and within the refugee camps.

Classroom in Palabek Refugee Settlement camp in Northern Uganda. Close to 50,000 people from South Sudan live in close quarters in this camp. There are 11 camps in Northern Uganda, a country that hosts 1.4 million refugees. Credit: Brian Hodges for African Women Rising

Given our long-term presence in and connection to these areas, AWR is in aunique situation for rapid response. Our work in the past has earned the trust of local government and community leaders, and we have a network of mobilizers and local contacts that can help identify and reach the most vulnerable.

So how are we responding and how can you help?

    Security and continued wellbeing of AWR staff– we are committed to paying all staff salaries for the next several months, even if we have to suspend operations. For those who continue to work we will ensure access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and knowledge on how to stay healthy
    Nutritional food support for vulnerable groups– contingent on resources, AWR will mobilize supplemental support for those most in need
    Covid-19 prevention in refugee camps– in collaboration with the taskforce, our team will provide information on how to keep refugee families healthy, identification of symptoms, what to do if someone becomes ill, and how to prevent spreading of the disease. Each household will receive soap.

If we have learned one thing from this, it is the realization that we are all connected and dependent on each other. Now is the time to step up – to show kindness and compassion beyond our own comfort zones.
This is a critical emergency situation and we have the opportunity to help change the outcome. We are counting on you to make that possible. Your donation today is pivotal.

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