With only 58 cases reported so far, the entire nation of Uganda is on lockdown. Transport in any vehicle that is not government-sanctioned (including private cars and motorcycles) is forbidden, and several women in labor lost their lives in the last few weeks because they were unable to reach a hospital in time. Those who wish to keep food markets open must choose to sleep employees on site. As in many other countries, people have lost jobs and livelihoods in the economic slowdown caused by the lockdown.
But here, there is no health insurance, no paid leave, no unemployment to apply for, no food bank to go to, no individual subsidies, no loans to businesses, and a dwindling national food supply. Many Ugandans are in danger of not surviving the lockdown.
COVID-19 hasn’t killed anyone here yet. Malaria’s still the primary Grim Reaper. But Ugandans are no strangers to other deadly viruses, Ebola among them, which is part of why the response has been so swift. Internet is slow, strained and only available to a certain segment of society, mostly in urban centers. As a result there is not a lot of accurate information getting out to rural areas about COVID-19. Low levels of information lead to higher levels of fear.
Despite the challenges, we are not without hope. In fact, we know we need more than ever to do what we do: Love boldly, create catalytic change, and partner well. Here is what Pilgrim Africa is doing now to mitigate and address the effects of the COVID-19 crisis:
Exposure & Vulnerability of Village Health Teams (VHTs): Our 207 VHTs in the Katakwi Rotary Malaria Project are like all VHTs in Uganda: they are volunteers, often elderly, and they treat children who are presenting symptoms of either malaria, diarrhea, or pneumonia. Especially during the treatment of pneumonia, they are exposed, and fearful. In the last two weeks, we have changed our training, equipping and operating procedures to allow our VHTs to keep functioning safely in the pandemic.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): This was a tough one. Thanks to the amazing generosity of friends at Rotarian Malaria Partners, we managed to get some of the last masks available in the country and distributed them last week to our VHTs (below); our current supply will last for approximately a month. Rotarian Malaria Partners, again, has helped connect us to mask suppliers and we are in the midst of placing an order for months 2 and 3, together with Living Goods, another NGO supporting VHTs. Both we and Living Goods are grateful to be able to make this order: other partners across the country are shutting down their community case management programs.
- Increased communication: We’re using health workers as a means to communicate COVID-19 facts with villagers. There is a high level of fear and a low level of knowledge. People living in rural areas are not receiving the kind of news that city dwellers are getting. Our VHTs are trusted providers of reliable health information. They will be providing COVID-19 updates and teaching transmission avoidance techniques.
Partnership: The Pilgrim Africa Board is meeting weekly to address the evolving needs arising from this crisis. Despite the usual threats to nonprofits at times of economic pullback, the Board is determined to “play offense.” Last week, we requested and obtained a new formal partnership with Uganda’s Ministry of Health to assist the country in its larger COVID-19 response, by assessing the needs of the quarantine centers and hospitals housing positives, and are discussing partnership with Uganda’s Critical Care Association as well. Uganda needs not only equipment and personnel, but also expertise and training, some of which can be obtained remotely.
Right now, COVID isn’t killing anyone in Uganda. Malaria is. Our VHTs are already doing lifesaving work, and we are doing everything we can to ensure their safety and adapt to a new threat. We are also working to ensure that COVID-19 won’t be a deadly scourge in a Uganda under-equipped to meet the demand of care for critically ill patients.
We are working on other partnering initiatives as well to help the country in the current crisis, and will be updating you on these soon. For everyone in the world right now, coronavirus is changing all the rules and upsetting the status quo. In Uganda, there’s potential to manage those changes proactively and well to avoid great disaster. We are focusing on what Pilgrim Africa does best: fostering hope by creating a local and actionable, if ambitious and visionary, plan for a sustainable, prosperous healthy future.
Stay safe, and love boldly.