Village Health Workers ensuring continuity of essential services during COVID-19

Martin began working as a VHW four years ago in his community providing preventive and promotive health with minor curative and referral services as appropriate.

Emma Mafara
Martin Chishaya
UNICEFZimbabwe/2020/Rutendo Kambarami
22 March 2021

Martin Chishaya is a Village Health Worker (VHW) in Zimbabwe. His enthusiasm to serve his people and his community is palpable. He remains positive and is prepared to put his own life at risk to serve those around him.

“The people we try to reach live in the remotest parts of the country where basic health services are unheard of.  It is unthinkable, but a reality,” he said in his village in Sanyati District, Mashonaland West Province.

Martin began working as a VHW four years ago in his community providing preventive and promotive health with minor curative and referral services as appropriate, before the emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

In January 2020, when the world was coming to grips with the devastation of the pandemic, Martin rolled up his sleeves and went about the job of serving his community, raising awareness about the virus.

He conducted handwashing demonstrations, emphasized the importance of social distancing and wearing of masks as well as explaining how COVID-19 is transmitted and how to manage it if people were infected. Martin also took his awareness sessions to a popular local market run by women where he taught them how to make face masks and the importance of distancing.

But it wasn’t enough.

“When I heard about coronavirus, I started looking for information from my local Chirikiti Clinic to increase awareness on what preventive measures can be taken. However, I felt I needed more knowledge to do my job even better,” he said.

“We are the roots of healthcare provision in this country. stopping my work due to COVID 19 would mean more children would die from vaccine preventable disease, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea among other ailments and this has far more disastrous consequences to our community,” Martin explained.

Martin Chishaya
Martin Chishaya, a Sanyati Village Health Worker (VWH) addresses fellow VHWs during a monthly feedback meeting.

Partners coming together to impact healthcare

Martin is one of the more than 17,600 (out of 18,000) VHWs around the country who are supported under the Health Development Fund (HDF) supported by the EU, UK Aid, Sweden, Irish Aid and Gavi as well as the World Bank’s-Zimbabwe Idai Recovery Project (ZIRP), Rockefeller Foundation and Australian Government. These VHW’s are helping contain COVID-19 and ensuring access to continuity of essential services for women and children. To help fill this gap, UNICEF’s community health program, conducted refreshed trainings for VHWs as well as new trainings for newly recruited VHWs, trained and deployed in villages who did not have any previously. The support included providing them with accurate and standardized information on preventive measures, myths and misconceptions, and a demonstration of handwashing techniques and COVID-19 prevention.

The program also developed a learning resource package, with job-aids, and other resource materials for the VHWs to use in their communities, teaching them how to continue to safely provide services for mothers and children as well as caring for themselves. 

“The training gave me a platform to ask questions and dispel my own myths related to the coronavirus. I especially found the part on ‘guidance for Infection Prevention and Control during home visits which include a no touch protocol in the absence of basic PPE to be useful,  Now we have taught caregivers how to measure growth monitoring using Mid -Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) tape-that way we have no direct contact with the babies,” explained Martin.

UNICEF through the HDF further provided basic personal protective equipment and infection prevention and control supplies to help prevent infections among VHWs and build confidence of community members on their safety when interaction with VHWs.

Dedicated to serving the community.

“I cannot stay at home because I am a VHW, but you can help me by adopting COVID 19 prevention measures and reducing the spread of infection. In these trying times, when mothers and children have been restricted to visit facilities due to COVID 19 lockdown measures, I try to find and support people even in the farthest areas. I cannot stop as we are their only hope it is my job to ensure that they have access to continued essential services” said Martin.

During the lockdown, when people were reluctant to visit health facilities for fear of contracting COVID-19, the Sanyati District VHWs managed to reach 2,349 pregnant women and treated 14, 927 children under five years for diarrhea. They also referred to 1,261 cases of seriously sick children at health facilities and worked hard on changing the behavior and attitude of people about health practices.

Ministry of Health and Childcare (MOHCC) Mashonaland West Provincial Nursing Officer, Mr Farayi Marufu said he is excited about the Village Health Worker program in strengthening the health system. “This comes at the right time as UNICEF works closely with MOHCC towards realization of the key health outcomes for women and children,” he said.