In many parts of the world, diseases as deadly as COVID-19 have struck before. For 75 years, we at CARE have helped in the hot spots: working where famine, conflict, and disaster strike to bring life-saving aid and to help communities build back stronger and more resilient. We were on the front lines for the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and have fought outbreaks of cholera and Zika in some of the world’s most vulnerable and hard to reach communities. We’ve learned lessons we can apply – together – to keep a COVID-19 tidal wave from killing millions of people in the global south, but we must act now.
Places like India and Nigeria, where the virus is now spreading, are densely populated and have millions of people living in tight quarters in slums without access to running water, reliable electricity, or sanitation. Imagine if every time you wanted to wash your hands, you had to walk two miles to access clean water. In Syria and other places with millions of displaced refugees, conditions are often worse. The Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh is home to 855,000 displaced people, and the only COVID-19 testing facility in the country is 10 hours away. How do we slow the disease’s spread in these parts of the world? It’s harder, but it is possible. Here are five things we can do:
1. Bring on the Basics: Soap, potable water, and other household products for personal hygiene.
While many of us are washing our hands 10 or more times a day to help prevent contracting or spreading the virus, many families we work with are unable to give their children a bath in clean water even once a week. CARE and other relief organizations are rising to the challenge in places like Mozambique, Bangladesh, Somalia, and Syria. We’re providing soap, installing handwashing stations, and building water storage tanks.
Women are the vanguard of community resilience and will be the lynchpin in this fight.
2. Strengthen Basic Health Infrastructure
If the onset and rapid spread of this virus is overwhelming healthcare facilities here in the U.S., imagine what it will do in places with just as many people, but less than one-one hundredth the number of doctors and nurses, and fewer and poorer healthcare facilities. It’s daunting. Still, there are ways to help make the healthcare clinics, and hospitals that do exist serve patients as effectively as possible by pre-positioning supplies and reinforcing sanitation processes to minimize infection, which CARE and others are doing in places like South Sudan and Ethiopia.
We learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa how heavy a toll a pandemic can take on the health care workforce when providers don’t have adequate protective gear or aren’t trained on protective protocols: one out of 10 providers treating Ebola there died from the disease. Protecting our frontline staff is of paramount importance. We’re organizing capacity-building sessions for medical team members directly involved in coronavirus preparedness, prevention, and response in the West Bank and Gaza, including physicians, nurses, and community health workers, as well as custodians on general hygiene measures.
3. Empower Local Women Leaders
Women are the vanguard of community resilience and will be the lynchpin in this fight. Why? Because in communities around the world, women are the glue: They care for their children and often their aging relatives, manage the household, support each other, and their farming or shop-keeping earns the daily income that translates to the nightly meal. In our 75 years of humanitarian work, CARE has learned to put women at the center as drivers of change, and it’s imperative that we act on that as we take on this challenge.
In Sri Lanka, for example, women business owners are coming together to devote their time and resources to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. An owner of a baby’s clothing store there coordinated an effort with other women entrepreneurs to produce 1,800 reusable face masks for the government and deliver the sewn masks free of charge to people in remote areas. These women were able to not only help combat the virus, but also keep their staffs – many of them women-headed households – working.
When it comes to a highly contagious virus, no community is safe until every community is safe.
4. Combat the “Infodemic” of Misinformation
The Ebola and Zika battles taught us that community trust made the difference between life and death: trust of information and acceptance of those offering guidance. Social media can be an important route to information and how-to videos; it can also be a source of misinformation and dangerous theories. We’re mobilizing community volunteers in places like Nigeria, Haiti, and Nepal to go door-to-door with important facts and guidance to help prevent, respond to, and mitigate outbreaks. We’re also translating World Health Organization guidance into local languages – and supplementing written materials with radio and social media posts.
5. Lend a Hand, Raise Your Voice
Preventing the impending tidal wave of COVID-19 will take all of us. It will take everyone following guidelines for their own health and safety to stop the spread. It will take our collective advocacy, including encouraging U.S. and European government response to include additional funding for prevention and response in development and humanitarian settings. And it will take financial support from individuals, foundations, and corporations many of whom are already answering the call. We and others are working with trusted partners on the ground to assess what is needed (and what is NOT needed) at the country and community level, and tailoring programs to the need. We won’t succeed without them. And we won’t succeed without you.
Let me say again: When it comes to a highly contagious virus, no community is safe until every community is safe. If we act now, and act together, we save lives and in so doing, protect all of us.