In Pictures: UNICEF continues support for critical frontline care during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy

Health team targets vulnerable refugee and migrant children and families with limited access to services

Melanie Sharpe, photos by Alessio Romenzi
INTERSOS UNICEF outreach worker Abdoul Bassite walks for a few minutes with seven-year-old Francesca [NAME CHANGED], as part of the process of measuring oxygen saturation in her blood, during a mobile clinic health screening in an informal settlement in Rome, Italy, on 31 March 2020.
21 April 2020

With co-funding from the European Union ‘RM Child-Health Initiative’, health teams have reached out to vulnerable refugee and migrant children and families who have limited access to services, even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting restrictions.


Italy has been one of the countries hit hardest by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  The country also has one of the largest populations of migrants and refugees in Europe.  This includes the 70,000 young people who have arrived as unaccompanied or separated children since 2014.

Even when there is no pandemic, refugee and migrant children and families face significant barriers accessing healthcare, accurate health information and preventative services like proper sanitation facilities. With COVID-19 the situation is worse, especially for those in crowded living conditions and limited access to services.

Although the pandemic has brought much of Italy to a halt, the INTERSOS health outreach team continues to provide children and families living in particularly vulnerable situations with vital health screenings, hygiene supplies and factual information on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Since June 2020, the activities of the team have been implemented with co-funding from the European Union’s ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative and UNICEF.

This story follows the outreach team as it runs one of its clinics in an informal settlement in the outskirts of Rome.

An outreach worker arrives to prepare the mobile clinic for the day’s activities in Rome

The outreach team consists of Doctor Antonella Torchiaro and Outreach Worker Abdoul Bassite. Here, Abdoul prepares the mobile clinic for the day. This includes loading the van with hygiene and health supplies, information materials and all the other equipment needed to run the clinic.

Abdoul lives in Rome and is originally from Togo.

“My job is to inform people about what is going on about the coronavirus, how they can protect themselves and how to protect other people,” he says. “The main problem we face in this period is that migrants and refuges are not aware of the risks of COVID-19. My job is to meet them and to explain what the virus is, how they can protect themselves and the rules they have to follow in order to be safe."

Since the beginning of Italy’s national lockdown as a result of coronavirus, the team has conducted outreach missions five days a week, every week.

Seven-year-old Francesca [NAME CHANGED] is given a protective mask

Today the team is visiting an informal settlement in the outskirts of Rome, where approximately 500 people live, primarily families with children. Most of the people who live here are refugees and migrants, but there are many Italian residents as well, and the outreach team helps anyone who is in need.

Here Abdoul Bassite helps prepare 7-year-old Francesca* for a health screening. As well as sharing information on how children and families can protect themselves from coronavirus, Abdoul also acts as a cultural mediator for families, ensuring they understand what exactly is going on and how the team can support them.

A view of the common space of an informal settlement located in the suburbs of Rome

The informal settlement, pictured here, was originally built as a storage facility. It now has approximately 500 residents, including 100 children. The living conditions are cramped as the building was never intended to house families.

The outreach team goes to three informal settlements in Rome, visiting each location once a week. The team also supports vulnerable people close to the city’s two main train stations where young refugees and migrants usually gather, and sometimes live.

Carlos [NAME CHANGED] helps his daughter, Francesca [NAME CHANGED], receive a medical screening

The other member of the outreach team is Dr. Antonella Torchiaro. Here she provides a health screening for Carlos* who is with his 7-year-old daughter Francesca*.  Carols and Francesca live in the settlement and are originally from Venezuela.

“We investigate whether there are the so-called epidemiological factors, that is, whether people have been in the so-called red zones or if they had contact with people who have coronavirus symptoms,” says Dr. Torchiaro. “We measure their temperature, ask if they have had any respiratory or flu symptoms and, together with the measurement of temperature and oxygen saturation, this helps us to have an overview of the overall situation and therefore to identify what can be defined as a suspected case of coronavirus.”

Doctor Antonella Tochiaro

Before beginning the health screenings, Dr. Antonella Torchiaro reminds families about appropriate social distancing that is needed to help protect everyone from coronavirus.

Dr. Torchiaro says that the cramped conditions in the informal settlements are difficult in any circumstance.

“I think of two families we met, one of African origins, one of Syrian origins, who were living in an informal settlement and their home is really small. There were 5 children with their parents in a very small space with the last child who was about 4 months old,” she says. “Living in such cramped spaces, all together, during such a stressful time can generate tensions. Such small spaces can be very difficult.”

Seven-year-old Francesca [NAME CHANGED] is taught how to correctly wash her hands

Outreach worker Abdoul teaches 7-year-old Francesca* how to correctly wash her hands, an important measure to protect people from coronavirus.

In addition to providing health screenings the outreach team distributes much needed sanitation supplies including hand sanitizer, wipes, soaps and sanitary napkins.

Cristina [NAME CHANGED] gets ready for her health screening

Abdoul helps put a protective mask on Cristina* who is almost 2 years old before her health screening.

Due to school closures, children who live here now spend more time in the building with their families. Not everyone has access to digital devices to attend online lessons while other are unfamiliar with the technologies. Some parents also struggle to support children with homeschooling because of language barriers.

Anna [NAME CHANGED] receives a medical screening

Dr. Antonella Torchiaro does a health screening of Anna* a resident of the informal settlement, while 7-year-old Francesca* looks on.

Dr. Tochiaro says women and girls face particular risks due to the ongoing pandemic. This includes pregnant women not knowing if they should, or can, access health care.

“A lot of women we meet are very worried about getting sick while pregnant and not being able to access health services,” she says.

During public health emergencies women and girls are also at higher risk of domestic violence because they have to spend more time confined at home and are socially isolated. The outreach team provides relevant information on how to access violence response services, including information on the national help line which functions 24 hours a day in five languages.

In this informal settlement, despite the many challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, women and girls play a pivotal role in organizing and facilitating the Outreach Team’s visits.

Doctor Antonella Torchiaro
Doctor Antonella Torchiaro

Dr. Antonella Torchiaro is pictured before putting on her personal protective equipment and then while wearing it.

She says that she does not spend too much time worrying about her own health, because she always takes all of the necessary precautions to protect herself.

“I feel safe because I think I have all of the individual protection tools I need. I’ve been involved in writing the safety guidelines and protocols so this makes me feel particularly safe because I know I have all the tools needed to deal with this situation,” she says.

Dr. Torchiaro does say that she deeply misses her family, who she may not see for months.

“There’s one thing I'm thinking about a lot, it is when I will be able to go home to visit my family because they live far away, I have parents in an age range that is particularly at risk, so before being sure that I cannot infect them, I have to wait months. I often think about it, I think I will have to wait the whole summer at least to see my family,” she says.

When Dr. Torchiaro is asked what motivates her to keep doing this vital work that may put her own health at risk, she says:

“The certainty that what I am doing right now is very necessary. You cannot sit idly by, you cannot help but do this job that we are doing,” she says.

Abdoul Bassite
Abdoul Bassite

Outreach worker Abdoul Bassite is pictured before putting on his personal protective equipment and then while wearing it.

Abdoul says he is well aware of the risks he faces doing this work but is dedicated to continuing to help children and families.

“Yes, we are aware of the risks, but we are taking all of the precautions to prevent ourselves from getting sick. You know we are very happy doing this work because we know that the small things that we are doing can save lives,” he says.



*Names changed to protect identities.

*Additional reporting contributions made by Maria Margherita Maglietti and Ivan Mei from Rome.

This story is part of the Project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe’, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative).


The content of this article represents the views of the author(s) only and is his/her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.