Photos: Health volunteers help keep families safe from COVID-19
Teaching the community how to prevent COVID-19.
In the Nairobi informal settlement of Kibera, people are accustomed to warm greetings with big hugs and hearty handshakes. But social distancing guidelines brought in since the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya have changed how residents greet each other.
In a small mudbrick and tin-roof house in Kibera, mother of eight Joyce Mterengo sits on her bed, with a rose-embroidered curtain separating her sleeping and sitting quarters. Bags hang on nails in wall, containing her few possessions. Joyce apologizes to Community Health Volunteer Violet Chemesunde as she beckons her to come inside. “Welcome to my home,” Joyce says with a smile. “I’m sorry I can’t welcome you the way I’m supposed to.”
After schools closed, Joyce sent six of her children to their rural home in Taita Taveta, partly over concerns about social distancing, which is difficult to do in crowded informal settlements. When the two women have finished chatting, Violet fetches a water jug and bar of soap. With the help of some neighbourhood children, she shows Joyce how to protect herself and her family from COVID-19.
“Violet taught us that we should make sure we wash our hands as soon as we get home,” Joyce says afterwards. “And if you have a cough, to make sure you cover your mouth. In Kibera, we are used to being in close proximity to each other, but right now we have to give each other distance so we can fight this pandemic.”
With more cases reported almost daily in Nairobi, volunteers such as Violet are helping curb the spread of the disease. With support from UNICEF, they visit water stations and households, educating people on handwashing techniques, social distancing and the steps to take if they suspect they have contracted the virus.
Kibera is the largest urban slum, or informal settlement, in Africa. It is home to up to a million people (estimates vary), many of them living on less than a dollar a day. Families here are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, due to the cramped living conditions and lack of access to water and sanitation. Many parents or caregivers in these areas work in the informal economy and are not able to stay at home without losing their livelihoods.
UNICEF is the leading voice for children affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. We are supporting the Government to develop messages and materials for print, radio and TV, reaching audiences of more than 6.8 million people. We are training community health volunteers like Violet to deliver messages, providing them with information materials and public address systems mounted on vehicles to broadcast throughout the settlements. Messages have been sent to mobile phone users via SMS blasts. And we’re providing information for parents on the free online platform Internet of Good Things.
In addition to the volunteers, community organisations in Kibera have also been trained by the Ministry of Health to deliver the same behaviour change messages. Grace Apondi from Tembea Kibera comments: “It’s important to teach the community how to prevent COVID-19 because they didn’t have the information. If every citizen takes his or her responsibilities seriously, I think we will fight this virus.”
In addition to behaviour change communication, UNICEF as part of the UN, is supporting the Government’s response to COVID-19 by providing water, sanitation and hygiene supplies in affected areas and working with partners to help keep essential health services going. We are supporting continued learning for children not in school via radio, TV and Internet, and working to keep children safe from violence and abuse.
At the end of her visit, Violet sums up her work to prevent COVID-19 in Kenya: “I wanted to become a community health volunteer to assist the families in my area about health,” she says. “During this pandemic, I have been going house-to-house, educating families about modes of transmission of coronavirus and prevention measures. I am telling them how to wash their hands using running water and soap, and about social distancing.”
If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in informal settlements such as Kibera, it will be thanks to people like Violet and Grace that the communities there will be better prepared and the impact less severe.
By Andrew Brown, UNICEF Kenya, and Michael Ilako.