Preventing coronavirus among the most vulnerable
Samba*, a child living in the street in Mali, has become a true handwashing champion
“Coronavirus is a dangerous illness that can be mortal,” Samba* tells us. “And there’s no medication for it.”
Samba is one of thousands of children living in the streets of Bamako, Mali’s capital, and other cities. Separated from their families, out of school, these children have little to no access to basic social services, such as healthcare. In addition, they’re regularly exposed to violence and abuse.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Mali exacerbated a situation which was already critical. Children like Samba, who are already vulnerable, are now being disproportionately exposed to the new coronavirus because they lack access to information and to the means which would allow them to protect themselves against the virus.
Faced with this situation, UNICEF and WHO are helping the Government of Mali spread prevention messages through channels that reach the most vulnerable children. In addition, a new partnership between UNICEF and Samusocial Mali is specifically supporting children living in the street. Thanks to the partnership, some 600 children living in the street now have access to handwashing devices set up in a dozen easily accessible sites, face masks and medical and nutritional follow up. An emergency shelter was also set up to enable children to temporarily escape the precarity of the streets. The project was made possible thanks to support from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).
“Coronavirus is a dangerous illness that can be mortal and there’s no medication for it.”
Today, on top of basic knowledge about COVID-19, Samba also masters key prevention measures, such as handwashing with clean water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
“I learned a lot during the sensitization sessions,” says Samba. “Now I help teach my peers. I show them how to wash their hands well, tell them about the importance of wearing the masks they’ve received, and I especially tell them to keep a distance from other people, especially people that cough or have a cold or a fever.”
Now at the temporary shelter in Quinzambougou neighborhood in Bamako, Samba is getting used to a new lifestyle with new rituals. He gets his temperature taken every morning, takes a bath, carefully washes his hands before meals, and attends educational activities and awareness-raising sessions on COVID-19, without forgetting to have some time to play and have fun.
The project hasn’t just equipped him with essential knowledge on how to protect himself and others against the virus – it’s also created a sense of stability and security. “I feel safe here, and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he says, playing table tennis with the other boys.
With the increase in needs, the existing shelter was reopened by Samusocial with UNICEF’s support. The shelter, just like 2 other centers and 15 homes for girls and young mothers, was equipped by UNICEF with handwashing devices and soap, face masks and visual aids to help with sensitization. The centers offer holistic care for children, providing meals, hygiene kits, and medical and psychosocial support.
“There are 13 children here at center, aged 12 to 15, including Samba,” explains Awa Yalcouyé, a nurse and social worker at Samusocial. “But in the context of the pandemic, the needs remain huge and we need to open up more temporary shelters so we can look after the hundreds of children in need.”
“This health crisis is exacerbating a situation which was already very fragile for children”
Indeed, the child protection situation in Mali, which was already fragile, is being aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Mali, more than a million children will need protection assistance in 2020, more than twice the number in 2019. Among the children the most at risk are girls, conflict-affected children, displaced and refugee children, children living in the street, talibe children and children who are separated from their families.
“This health crisis is exacerbating a situation which was already very fragile for children,” explains Daniela Luciani, Child Protection Manager at UNICEF Mali. “More than ever, it’s our collective responsibility to ensure the rights of children are fully protected in these difficult times.”
Together with partners, UNICEF is working to ensure the continuation of child protection services, for example by supporting countries to establish safe, accessible channels to report on violence, neglect and abuse against children, as well as inform children, youth and their communities on their rights and available protection measures.
In Mali, UNICEF works with the Government of Mali and civil society organizations to provide child protection services, particularly psychosocial support and alternative care to children affected by COVID-19 or exposed to a high risk of contamination.
For Samba, the post-COVID-19 period rhymes with a new glimmer of hope for family reunification. “We’re in touch with his family and we’ve already started mediation and discussing reunification,” says Awa. “It can take some time, but we won’t give up because we’d like him to find a family setting that will be protective for him.”
UNICEF is working with WHO, UN agencies and NGOs to support the Government of Mali in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF’s support is made possible thanks to partners such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Education Cannot Wait, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, the Central Emergency Response Fund and the UN Peacebuilding Fund.
* Name changed to protect the child.