Vanuatu, an archipelago in the Pacific, had largely escaped the crippling effects of COVID-19 until March 2022. For a remote island nation, closing the borders and canceling almost all incoming and outgoing travel was a simple solution to keep its population free of the virus.
Although a handful of cases did reach the country, with strict quarantines, the virus was largely kept at bay. By the beginning of 2022, less than 10 positive cases had been recorded, but as travel was reintroduced, the number of cases sky-rocketed, despite two weeks of quarantine on arrival. As of mid-June, over 10,000 positive cases were reported.
In response, the Vanuatu Ministry of Health expanded its existing partnership with IsraAID's team in Vanuatu to conduct MHPSS (Mental Health and Psychological Support) COVID-19 screening. MHPSS volunteers, trained by IsraAID Protection Specialists and Vanuatu's psychiatrist specialist 'Mind Care Unit' operated a national COVID-19 Call Center.
IsraAID and the Vanuatu Ministry of Health's objectives in this joint project are to conduct mental health screening using a questionnaire, refer Ni-Vanuatu in need to the appropriate mental health services, and produce reports that are useful for the Ministry of Health's Mental Health Department.
In just the first month of operation, IsraAID and the Ministry of Health have made some significant achievements. Since mid-May when the program began, volunteers have already reached almost 250 affected individuals, including frontline workers, children, and the elderly. The majority of respondents have reported great appreciation for volunteers who have dedicated time to focus on their psychological well-being. The team of volunteers that have been assembled by IsraAID and the Ministry of Health follow a daily schedule and remain organized and committed to providing adequate mental health screening.
IsraAID volunteer Letty shared with us her experience working in the call center: "Some people on the calls maybe find it stressful to talk about Covid but when we speak with them, they feel free to talk. They also tell us what they need."
IsraAID Vanuatu will continue to work with the Ministry of Health and other local partners to mitigate the mental impact of COVID-19 in Vanuatu.
As COVID-19 continues to affect communities around the world, we are grateful for your ongoing support.
We’ve all heard the cliche “greater than the sum of its parts.” It may seem somewhat overused, but for good reason. Gabriel Project Mumbai has been supporting vulnerable communities in India since 2012, and IsraAID globally since 2001. We both knew we needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in India, and we both recognized that we would be even more effective by combining our expertise and know-how in order to address the critical COVID-19 surge in India.
Earlier this year, India was hit by an unprecedented and devastating wave of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. At its peak, daily cases surged to over 400,000, the most of any country at any point during the pandemic so far. Major shortages of medical supplies and medical staff left healthcare facilities overburdened and struggling to cope with the influx of cases.
The need was clear and so was IsraAID’s choice to respond, yet flying even just one staff member into the country was not an option. IsraAID joined forces with Gabriel Project Mumbai, a local organization that knew first-hand how this pandemic was affecting the communities they work with.
Together, we are supporting government-run hospitals in Palghar, a rural district north of Mumbai with a majority population of indigenous tribal communities, directly reaching over 100,000 people in just six months. We have funded nurses’ salaries and hired additional medical staff to strengthen understaffed health facilities, as well as providing PPE and medical equipment to overwhelmed hospitals. A team of local community mobilizers are providing key public health messages and visual aids to thousands and are distributing crucial protective items and food aid. We are supporting these community mobilizers as they work in some of the most vulnerable communities by providing them with self-care and mental health support. Additionally, we built an oxygen plant and vaporizer unit that will support the life-saving efforts for hundreds of critical care patients.
When speaking with some of the nurses hired as part of our joint project, we asked if they were afraid to serve in a COVID ward. Nurse ‘J’ was in fact happy to serve COVID patients; her mother was diagnosed with the virus during the first wave and, thankfully, recovered. After feeling terrified at the thought of losing her mother, J’s experience provided her with an inexplicable closeness to her patients and their families.
It’s not a given that two organizations with aligned values and goals will make great partners. The challenge of creating an effective long-term partnership is finding complementary organizations, creating an equal partnership with equal say. One of us is a community-based organization with a local team, local knowledge and cultural expertise, and established long-term relationships of trust with the local government and communities. The other is a global NGO with expertise in public health, emergency relief, mental health, and COVID-19 response. The gaps in each organization are supported by the knowledge and resources of the other, allowing each organization’s strengths to complement one another and serve as valuable assets as they support communities most affected by the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, leveraging local talent and solutions was already a focus for both organizations, preferring to procure medical equipment, water filters, and other essential relief items locally. Even as an international NGO, IsraAID makes an effort in every mission to hire staff and technical experts from the communities they’re working in. That’s not to say that international support and professional expertise are not important, but it remains crucial to work collaboratively with local communities and listen to the perspectives and expertise of the national and local governments. This is critical when determining our course of action and accounting for the needs they identify and the assets and skills they possess.
We have ensured local sustainable solutions for complex challenges. As other aid organizations and governments were sending oxygen concentrators to India, we provided a localized response. Together with government health authorities, we built oxygen generating facilities for critical care patients in COVID-19 hospital units, saving hundreds of lives. The facility was installed by a local company, and staff from the hospitals were trained on how to maintain the facility, therefore the maintenance and longevity of the facility is not dependent on any outside expertise and can be repaired whenever is needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first crisis the people of India have dealt with, and unfortunately, it won’t be the last. The work we’re doing together doesn’t only address the impacts of the pandemic but provides long-term health care and community outreach solutions for marginalized communities. Ensuring a community-based approach and the expertise and resources of both Gabriel Project Mumbai and IsraAID, the skills and resilience that the communities are currently building will be there long after our emergency response is over, helping them build back better. Together, we can achieve more.
IsraAID has been operating in Barranquilla, Colombia since 2019. Our programs in Colombia provide a holistic response to the acute needs of the mixed migrant communities in the area, focusing specifically on the protection and psychosocial needs of the communities living in Soledad and Barranquilla.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities in Colombia have been coping with lockdowns and their consequences: rising rates of gender-based violence, increasing education gaps, on and off lockdowns, and of course, the stress and instability brought on by each of these. In addition, the Barranquilla area was hit by Hurricane Iota in November 2020, and the legal status of many Venezuelans in Colombia was changed drastically in a landmark decision in February, giving them special protective status.
In light of these new and shifting needs, IsraAID established COVID-19 call centers to provide remote information and support. The call center provided a variety of COVID-related services for over 2,000 beneficiaries in the last year. Community members are able to contact the call center through Whatsapp, or through direct phone calls with operators.
IsraAID provided training for the operators, who offered psychosocial support, information on preventing the transmission on COVID-19, up-to-date clarifications about the local guidelines and lockdowns, and referrals to partner organizations in the area who could provide direct assistance with food, shelter, protection, employment, and cash-based assistance. This support is critical for these mixed migrant communities, as they often do not have access to other sources of information and are in urgent need of support to cope with the current circumstances.
Over the last months, IsraAID has recognized a dearth in our operational capacity and began to look for simple solutions that could help the team of operators better track the various data managed by the call center. This includes:
IsraAID, in partnership with monday.com, an Israeli company offering their online platform and their programmer’s hours in-kind to organizations working on COVID-19 support, is now building an integrated system that will map and offer this information at the click of a button! This process is ongoing and will provide extremely valuable support with tracking, monitoring, follow-up, and referral support for the call center.
Story of Impact
The Nava Aguaran Family arrived in Colombia from Venezuela a little over two years ago. The household is an extended family, with 2 adults and 7 children who have been struggling severely since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The adults have had a difficult time making ends meet, and the family has been forced to live day to day, doing their best.
A member of the family got in touch with our call center and spoke with one of our operators and shared that the family was at risk of eviction. IsraAID’s operator was able to support the family’s needs, connecting them with another local actor through the referral pathway, who was able to cover the family’s rent for six months. This financial aid not only took care of the immediate need, but also allowed the family to look forward, and with a break from the stress of making rent, they were able to establish a micro business and start to work toward financial stability.
The rate of COVID-19 vaccinations has recently increased around the globe, giving hope to millions of people desperate for relief after this challenging period. Rapid distribution and equitable access to vaccines is essential. It’s not only ‘morally responsible’, but also economically beneficial for the rest of the world. International collaboration is crucial to fight the long-term effects of the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its second year, there have been over 100 million cases worldwide and almost 3 million deaths. Non-medical impact can be seen in various aspects of life including income, employment, access to education and health care, and mental health. Even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world, the pandemic has devasted millions. Many families and businesses are behind on rent or facing eviction, unemployment rates are climbing, the lines at food banks are longer than they have ever been before, and global mental health is a crisis of its own.
For middle and low-income countries, the challenges are somewhat similar, with the exception that they have far fewer resources, pushing their citizens into poverty and hunger. A new study conducted by UC Berkeley and the World Bank surveyed people across 16 low-income countries, suggesting that 70% of households suffered a decrease in income, and 45% were forced to miss or reduce meals. Only 11% were able to access health care, and in some communities, this dropped to 0%. Measures of economic activity like business income suggest that in some areas it shrunk by half. 2020 reversed years of progress in addressing global poverty, throwing many poorer communities back into food insecurity and extremely low incomes.
Within just a week of arriving to Juba, South Sudan last month, I saw government restrictions significantly increase. The number of cases of COVID-19 jumped, resulting in a ban on all social gatherings, closure of schools, universities, and businesses not deemed essential, and cutting the number of passengers on public transportation by half. Without financial support from national governments or international institutions, vulnerable people desperate to feed their families face no choice but to ignore social distancing measures.
The approval of COVID-19 vaccines seemed like a game-changer after so many months of restrictions, but without rapid distribution, there is a long journey ahead. The longer it takes to vaccinate the population, the greater chance of variants developing, strengthening the need for rapid global vaccine rollout. For countries that have already started vaccinating their citizens, there is hope, however there is a fear that many countries, especially lower-income nations, won’t have access to vaccines until as late as 2024. Any delays to worldwide vaccine access will only prolong the pandemic.
International collaboration is essential for rapid and equitable distribution. Even when safe and well-developed vaccines are available, local distributions are often prioritized over a globally coordinated approach. As of today, about 10 countries have administered 75% of all vaccine doses.
Aside from any moral or humanitarian arguments to provide vaccine access to all countries, the global economic impact is also significant. A new study by the RAND corporation shows that it is less costly for high-income countries to distribute vaccines to lower-income countries than to focus only on local distribution. For every $1 spent on supplying vaccines to low-income countries, high-income countries could receive $5 in return due to speedier economic recovery, as global economies are linked through trade, production, investments, and tourism. The bottom line is that distributing vaccines is not only responsible morally, but also economically.
Some efforts already exist to ensure a more equitable approach to vaccine allocation between countries. For example, G7 country leaders have committed 7.5 billion USD to the WHO’s COVAX initiative to finance global equitable access to tests, treatments, and vaccines in 2021. This is an important start, but it will not be enough. From both economic and health perspectives, none of us will be out of the pandemic until we all are. With this in mind, IsraAID is working closely with its teams around the globe to help the most vulnerable communities as they build back better, past the pandemic, and toward a more resilient future. But in order for this work to really take off, collaboration and equity has to be a central pillar of vaccination efforts.
With Sexual & Gender-Based Violence on the rise in South Sudan, International Women’s Day celebrations are more important than ever, yet they’ve fallen casualty to COVID-19 restrictions.
February saw a large spike in the number of COVID-19 cases reported in South Sudan. Public services have been closed for months, and it doesn’t look like we’ll see the lockdown lifted anytime soon. Without an end in sight, we’re anxious about the “shadow pandemic” – the secondary consequences of COVID-19 – and have seen an increase in incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
As COVID-19 Cases Rise, So Does Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
The pandemic has cost many people their job and the value of the South Sudanese Pound has plummeted, leading to increased tensions at home. Affording just one meal a day is not a simple task for many families. With so much control taken from people’s hands, stress levels are high. Since the pandemic began, we have been able to continue to meet with vulnerable people already known to us and manage and refer SGBV cases, but expanding our reach has been on hold for many months now. There are more survivors of SGBV that need our support.
With limited access to the community, we’re fearful we aren’t doing enough. Our biggest concern is the sharp increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It is reported that up to 90% of recent cases of violence are related to COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, this was already our main focus, creating safe and empowering spaces for women and girls and providing case management for survivors of SGBV, but the situation has only worsened over the past year. In 2020, 50% of women in South Sudan suffered from intimate partner violence.
Reduced Access to Communities
The virus entered the country in April, and, over the past year, the government has escalated restrictions as cases continue to rise. Travel bans, school closures and curfews created barriers to our activities that transformed our regular in-person activities in Women and Girl Friendly Spaces to door-to-door visits, severely reducing the number of people we can reach in a day. But with the recent uptick in cases, our staff have become less welcome during home visits. Many fear that people from outside of the community could bring COVID-19 to their homes and families, and at as much as $75 per test – more than two months of income – accurately tracking the virus is near impossible.
Our Community Emergency Council members and Community Focal Points act as custodians linking the organization to the community. The latter conduct home visits with support from social workers, making it possible to meet with vulnerable people and still keep within COVID-19 guidelines. They provide crucial information and can refer vulnerable people for relevant services. As trust declines, the community focal points have become our saving grace. These are trained volunteers who serve as the link between IsraAID and their communities, without which, access would be near impossible.
Since July 2020, we have been providing direct psychosocial support to 426 survivors of GBV in Urban Juba, Kajo Keji, Meridi and Lainya. Those supported include survivors of rape, sexual assault, psychological abuse, physical abuse, child forced marriage, and denial of resources or services. These communities are dealing with both their displacement and the pandemic, so it’s crucial to have their trust. As COVID-19 cases increase in South Sudan, trust towards others decreases.
Why International Women’s Day Is So Important in South Sudan
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day to celebrate and recognize the contribution of women at all levels — family, community, and even institutions. It is a day to educate the community to consider women’s rights in all activities. The women in the communities we work with are our driving force. They plan how IsraAID celebrates IWD, based on their priorities. In the past, this has included singing about women’s rights, short plays, and sports games. Our role as IsraAID is to guide the process, but this year there has been no process to guide due to restrictions imposed by the government on social gatherings.
This week we should be celebrating one of our biggest annual events, but after a year of one-to-one meetings instead of community events, we’re yet again missing an opportunity to reach a considerable number of people with key awareness-raising messages. At our IWD events, we find all different community members – men and women, religious leaders and community chiefs, and girls of all ages. It is an opportunity to meet, discuss, and ensure thousands of new people hear the resilient women of South Sudan.
Even with continued lockdowns, office closures, positive COVID tests in our team, and fear within the communities, we are doing all we can to provide survivors of sexual and gender-based violence with the support they need. IsraAID has been working in South Sudan for 10 years, and with that experience behind us, we know we can get through this pandemic, no matter how long it takes. We hope we will be able to mark the next International Women’s Day together.
IsraAID South Sudan is the core leader of the GBV working group at the state level, and has been actively involved in the establishment of GBV referral pathways in Juba, Kajo-Keji, Lainya and Maridi. IsraAID is an active member of the Humanitarian Response Plan 2021 and is represented in the Protection Cluster, MHPSS Technical Working Group, and Child Protection Sub-cluster.
Galla Isaac Stephen is IsraAID South Sudan’s Protection Program Manager.
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