Unlocking vital services for refugee children amidst the COVID-19 crisis

"Movement and social distancing restrictions halted the delivery and access to critical social services."

By Hope Ejang Muzungu
coronavirus, COVID-19, health, education, remote learning, refugees, refugee children, displaced persons, South Sudan
UNICEF Uganda/2018/Nakibuuka
22 June 2020

When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) invaded Uganda in March, the whole country went into a preventive lockdown, and with it, various services, primarily those deemed non-essential. 

Whereas the whole country was filled with trepidation, the situation was doubly worrying for the 1.4 million refugee population in Uganda, as a people group highly dependent on local and international humanitarian support even for the most basic needs.

According to UNICEF Chief of Gulu Field Office Fabian Mwanyumba, movement and social distancing restrictions not only halted the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene and education programmes but also hampered access to critical health services.  

“We have had to modify approaches to deliver vital programme activities and in so doing, learnt various lessons.”

Opportunities for remote learning

At the onset of the pandemic, all schools were closed, bringing a temporal halt to the education of nearly half of the country’s population (under 15 years). As the lockdown stretched, the need for alternative learning methods became more apparent. To supplement the Ministry of Education radio broadcasts of academic content for students, UNICEF-supported radio talk shows are mobilizing parents and communities on alternative learning platforms. A report from the UNICEF Mbarara Field Office indicates that community study support centres were created in which three to six children meet daily at radio learning schedules to attend their lessons. The lessons are also guided by self-study materials developed by the National Curriculum Development Centre. Preliminary assessments indicate that though some parents do not have radios and are illiterate, in other families, siblings in higher classes support the younger ones in learning. 

Given the increasing digitization of the refugee population in Uganda through mobile technology, UNICEF through a partnership with Airtel Africa is also rolling out the use of digital tools to facilitate continued learning in Uganda and 12 other sub-Saharan African countries, at no cost to the learners. As schools remain closed, UNICEF plans to extend coverage of classes and further scale the digitization of education for refugee and Ugandan children even after COVID -19. The same channels also are being utilised for risk communication, social mobilization and general community engagement on COVID-19. 

Village health teams as essential workers

Whereas Uganda has undertaken vast precautionary measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19, a great threat still remains from diseases like HIV/AIDS malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea, which are ranked among the top second killer diseases among children under five years.  Even as a UNAIDS May report noted challenges for young people in accessing HIV treatment due to movement restrictions, village health teams (VHTs) have become a critical component in the fight against COVID-19 and other diseases. A UNICEF Gulu Field Office report indicates that the district health teams now provide three months’ stock of medicines and test kits to the village health teams for use in remote and hard-to-reach areas, including refugee settlements and their host villages. In the month of May in Yumbe, a refugee-hosting district in West Nile sub region, over 100 HIV patients including pregnant mothers, adolescents and children who had missed medication were tracked through Persons Living with HIV networks and resumed treatment. The VHTs who also carry out door to door COVID-19 awareness campaigns, have become critical foot soldiers in the fight against this and other pre-existing diseases. 

Underlying challenges to COVID-19 restrictions

A May 2020 Ground Truth Solutions survey among community leaders in 10 refugee camps revealed that people are more afraid of dying of hunger than coronavirus. The ability to meet basic needs has drastically reduced since March 2020 especially with a 30 per cent cut in food distribution among refugees, resulting from a funding shortfall.     Resultantly, despite official closure of the border with South Sudan, there is reported continued movement of refugees through illegal entry points in search for food. Additionally, a COVID-19 preparedness assessment in over 10 refugee districts pointed out physical distancing and non-functional water sources as primary challenges across most districts particularly in northern Uganda. 

Though COVID-19 poses a health threat to the livelihoods of refugee and other vulnerable children across the country, ‘There is a great need, now more than ever, to sustain and even enhance programme delivery to ensure education, nutrition and safety for every child’, Fabian Mwanyumbwa concludes.