COVID-19 and Concern: Questions answered

March 20, 2020

The COVID-19 epidemic will touch everyone in some way — it’s inevitable. But there are some communities that are much more at risk than others, and they include almost everyone with whom we work. Here are some questions, answered.

1. Is COVID-19 affecting Concern’s countries of operation?

For the moment, many of the countries in which we work have relatively few confirmed cases of the Novel Coronavirus — but that is rapidly changing. In some of these countries, the resources for testing are very limited, and it’s quite possible that the virus is already more widespread than reported. Many governments have introduced or are planning travel restrictions in an effort to slow the spread, but they are often dealing with long and porous borders, making containment very challenging.

Photo of Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya.

2. What are the dangers?

 There is potential for an enormous humanitarian catastrophe if COVID-19 takes hold and spreads through regions in Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia. Concern concentrates its efforts in fragile contexts — where governance is poor, health systems are weak, and communities are especially vulnerable, even at the best of times. These are the places where people will be least prepared and have the fewest resources available to cope with a pandemic. “Developed” countries are seriously struggling to cope — imagine how it might be if the virus starts to spread through Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Family photo

3. But COVID-19 won’t spread easily in hot countries, right?

Not necessarily true. There is a theory that the spread of the virus will abate as the weather gets warmer, and is less likely to spread in hot, tropical environments. But it’s just that — a theory. The truth is, we don’t know. Professor Paul Digard, chair of virology at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek: “What evidence there is comes by analogy with other viruses—some other coronaviruses and more distantly related respiratory viruses such as influenza, which do tend to transmit better in the winter months.”

Dr. Nancy Messionnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against assuming the number of cases will be affected by warmer weather. “I think it’s premature to assume that,” she said. “We haven’t been through even a single year with this pathogen.”

4. So, what are you doing about it?

A lot. Concern is not a medical organization, but we do have vast experience over five decades of dealing with the prevention of disease transmission. The two most important factors (you’ve heard it said countless times) are:

  • Effective communication of accurate information
  • Good hygiene practices, especially hand-washing

Our teams all over the world incorporate hygiene into almost everything we do. Anyone who arrives at one of our nutrition centers gets a presentation on best hygiene practices. Any community that receives Concern water infrastructure (pumps, wells, latrines) must take part in extensive behavior change activities around hygiene. The simple messaging of hand-washing and social distancing is not so easy when dealing with the overcrowded conditions in refugee and displacement camps  and urban slums. This is where we can help, with clear public health messaging and cash transfers to enable people to purchase the essentials for survival.

Health system strengthening has been a core part of our work in countries like South Sudan, where government resources are few, and we have learnt valuable lessons. We also have extensive experience of Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) and community awareness campaigns, from our work during the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and DRC. We will take that experience and use it in every way we can to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In addition, we are looking ways to maintain access to education for children who are out of school, and investigating how we can adapt our emergency mobile cash distribution systems to help support local economies.

concern health promoter in CAR

5. What about your staff?

There are about 4,000 people working for Concern, across 27 countries (including the U.S., U.K., Ireland, and South Korea). They are our most valuable asset. In the countries where we have programs, each team has established a working group to assess how best to deal with the challenges posed by this coronavirus. The overall response is being overseen by a global organizational task force. The bottom line is that we will plot the most effective ways to help the communities with whom we work, while keeping the health and well being of our colleagues as the highest priority.

Our teams are committed and highly professional at what they do. Most Concern staff are from the country in which they work, and many of them live among those who take part in our programs. They have chosen to work in some of the toughest contexts — and our job is to back them up in every way possible.

6. What do you need?

The simple fact is, to be well positioned to tackle COVID-19 in places like Haiti, Syria, and Ethiopia, we will need money. Our grant management teams are working flat out to engage with governments, foundations, and major donors, to help assess how we can best reallocate existing funds and resources to help deal with this crisis. The majority of the millions of dollars we receive each year from these sources is contractually tied to particular programs and outcomes — meaning we can’t just decide to spend it on something else. It will take some time to renegotiate any redirection of funds, and we are on it.

We will also be applying for any new emergency funding that comes available, although many donor governments are busy with their own problems right now. The best way you can help us help those least able to deal with COVID-19 is to make a donation of whatever amount you can afford. That will give our teams more flexibility to respond quickly, effectively, and safely.

Get updates on the fight against COVID-19 in the most vulnerable communities