This Fight Will Not Be Won in Hospitals - Transcript

Welcome to our new podcast series, where we take an inside look at the work we are doing together around the world. We’ll keep you up to date on how we are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, while bringing you uplifting stories of the lifesaving work we continue to do for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Kevin Kostic: Hello, this is Kevin Kostic at Catholic Relief Services headquarters in Baltimore. Well, technically, today I’m in my basement, near our headquarters building, like most of us, following the Covid-19 guidelines for physical distancing.

Welcome to our first podcast in a series designed to bring us together and keep you up to date on all our important work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the lifesaving work we continue to do for the world’s most vulnerable people.

This is taken from a live webinar series, which explains the beeping you will hear.

As many of you know, CRS was born in crisis, during World War II. We’re not strangers to the threat of deadly disease on a massive scale. 

Because of the trust you place in us, we wanted to give you an inside look into some of the critical areas of our work. Joining us today from their homes are Jennifer Poidatz, Vice President of Humanitarian Response for Catholic Relief Services, and Niek de Goeij, our Country Representative in Uganda.

Kevin: Jennifer, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us. The scale of COVID-19 is pretty phenomenal. And the pandemic has affected how CRS works in basically every country we serve. Is that about right?

Jennifer Poidatz: Yeah, definitely. And hi Kevin, and hello to everyone. And I just wanted to start off by thanking those who are supporters already, who have helped us to initiate program adaptations or new programming in places like Uganda, where Niek is joining us from, and also places like Liberia, among others. CRS’ operations across the globe have been affected, and I think we’re all kind of settling into what we now can consider our new normal operating environment—probably for some time now.

CRS and partners are working incredibly hard to respond to the risk and impact on the world’s most vulnerable populations. We’re especially concerned about those living in fragile communities, where health systems are strained and access to clean water is limited even in pre-pandemic times. We’re already seeing the impacts on vulnerable groups that are also expected to increase, whether they’re elderly, orphans, vulnerable children, refugees, migrants, or urban daily wage earners who all of a sudden can no longer work due to confinements that are put in place to stop the transmission.

Kevin: So, given the scope of the pandemic, the needs and the risks, where do we start? What are our biggest priorities?

Jennifer: Yeah, I think probably three main areas that CRS is focusing on. So, first and foremost, we know there are enormous Catholic health networks across many of the countries that we work in, as well as government health facilities, that they have the resources and the equipment and the capacity to really be on the frontline of the response. To use our existing network and local presence, to raise awareness, promote prevention and fight stigma and misinformation. And then also to improve hygiene and hand-washing and sanitation facilities, not just at health facility level, but also at the community level and at the household level as well. I was actually, just this morning, talking to our team in Afghanistan, and they’re really looking at rural health facilities along the border between Afghanistan and Iran, which of course is extremely vulnerable given the high number of cases that we’ve seen in Iran.

We’re open for business and we’ve been able to rapidly adjust the way we work, whether reducing the frequency of our distributions, moving our follow-up and consultations, to using the phone or using WhatsApp, using TV and radio for messaging. So, these are just a few ways that we’re adapting our programming. And another example is in Sierra Leone, where the schools have closed so we’re delivering food to families, to the children in their homes. But in addition to the food, we’re actually giving them solar powered radios made in Sierra Leone, so they can actually then have their lessons through the radio.

Kevin: So Niek, how has this affected the work going on in Uganda?

Niek de Goeij: Yeah, thank you Kevin. It’s my honor to be speaking to you today from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Gosh, I mean, we definitely saw the wave of COVID coming our way, and so we’ve been preparing for the worst-case scenario basically since early March. We were really suddenly surprised by the lockdown that was announced by the president. We had a one-hour time window to kind of get our final ducks in a row. And luckily we were ready, but unfortunately about 30 of our staff were cut off from their families in field offices, and since mid-March have not been able to travel back to even go see their families and will have to wait before they can go see them.

And so, for us in Uganda, under normal circumstances, we have a really wonderful portfolio of programs. We support more than 100,000 children who are, in one way or another, affected by HIV, who live in very fragile families, and who we’re supporting to stay within their families. We support more than half a million people in a very dry region out in the East to help them with improved agriculture so they can better take care of themselves, and so that farmers can actually capitalize on that great climate that we have here. And then lastly, and Jennifer alluded to it a little bit already, Uganda hosts no less than 1.3 million refugees in a very open border, open heart and arms national policy. And so we’re quite worried about the 1.3 million refugees, but also about the 40 million Ugandans that are here also very vulnerable every normal day.

And so we work in these refugee settlements and we work, we build schools. One of the programs that I’m maybe most proud of is that we build houses for very vulnerable refugee families. And so we were really concerned that mostly those programs where really the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable would benefit from that, that those programs would actually have to come to an end. But luckily, we’ve been able to negotiate with the government, and we have been given the status of providing lifesaving programs, which we wholeheartedly agree with. And luckily our vehicles and our staff are still around to circulate and basically doing the job, to make sure that our mission advances.

Kevin: That’s fantastic. So when you’re considering all these challenges, how are you adapting?

Niek: Yeah, it’s hard because this is a crisis that really hits all of us. Right? But with this full lockdown in place, even the motor taxi man in Kampala or a woman who was cutting hair and a little shop in a small village, they can’t do their jobs anymore either. They earn their money in a day, and just spend them on food that same day. And so, they can only last for a few days that way.

And, on the other side, Uganda really doesn’t have a choice. I mean, we have a very undeveloped health system here. And so the only way for Uganda to respond to this crisis is to try and avoid it and stay with very low number of cases. So I think the challenge for me and the team here is really, we have to continue our critical work despite COVID because people depend on our normal programs to lead decent lives. And at the same time, we really have to contribute to also make sure that the COVID crisis doesn’t get worse, and that we continue supporting our brothers and sisters in the health system also.

So in a way, we’re blessed in Uganda that we have quite a bit of capacity. We have experience from the West Africa Ebola crisis from a few years back. We have experience from SARS back in Southeast Asia even farther back. And so we have very competent staff that are actually now working hand-in-hand with the Ministry of Health to develop the national policy for infection prevention and control, which is basically saying like, how do we isolate potential COVID cases and don’t mix them with people that turn out to be not infected so that we can avoid problems down the line? You know, it’s really important that we can continue working with our Caritas partners to keep on delivering those homes for those really vulnerable, extremely vulnerable for example, single refugee mothers.

Kevin: So let me follow up on that. Jennifer, what is the role of our partners during this crisis?

Jennifer: I think for CRS it is kind of business as usual because the way we work with partners, and support them, and they often are leading in the response. And in our context, the fight is not going to be won in the hospitals. The fight is going to be won at all levels, starting with the household, the community level and then within the formal health structures. And that’s why our local partners who have numbers and numbers of volunteers, and already an existing presence in these communities, that we can really have the ability to impact and to avoid what could be such a terrible situation.

Niek mentioned the Ebola response. I mean one of the things we learned both in the West Africa response, but also in the Ebola response in the DRC, is the importance of trust, the importance of trust by community members in those who are passing key messages about behavior change, and awareness and practices that have to change in order to ensure prevention. And I think that’s such a valuable thing that we have in our partners because they are trusted members of their communities.

Niek: I completely agree with Jennifer. You know CRS has been in Uganda since 1965, and we have such a long track record of really important work with our local partners here. And so when it comes to this trust basis, if I walk into a government minister’s office, or I need to go meet with a bishop, then they’re, you know, “Oh, CRS, it’s wonderful. You know, I remember when I was 10 years old and a CRS truck came and they gave me food and I survived.” And maybe that’s not always our work these days, but that trust is so large in CRS that it facilitates a ton of our work. A lot of what we do wouldn’t be possible without that trust and the reputation we’ve been able to build over decades.

Kevin: Jennifer, you’ve been leading CRS emergency response programs for many years. You were a country representative in India for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. How does COVID-19 compare to other emergencies?

Jennifer: Yeah, in terms of comparison, I think it’s a bit daunting in the fact that it’s global, right? So it’s not just India, it’s not just the Philippines, it’s not just Uganda. It’s basically every country we’re in, and also in our own, our home countries. So it’s affecting us personally, it’s affecting our families, our partners and their families. But when you look further in terms of what’s similar, there’s a lot of similarities as well which will certainly help us as we continue in this daunting task to prevent suffering and eventually help people recover.

So, in addition to looking at the even more pressing shelter needs for families that are on the move or in precarious situations or refugees, our shelter team also has the capacity to build temporary triage facilities, to build new isolation facilities, to help government and our faith-based institution using their technical capacity in another way. And then I think the other key thing is our response has to be holistic, which again for CRS, that’s really critical in any humanitarian response. That it’s not just health, it’s not just food. Niek mentioned people losing their jobs, ruptures in local market activity, psychosocial needs of those, or there could be the impact on communities, intention within the communities. And it’s only through a holistic response that we can ensure to minimize both the short- and the longer-term impact of the pandemic.

And then finally, the key thing for us is our private funds. In any emergency, we’re so blessed to have private resources to be the first ones there. We’re already there, but the first ones actually then into those affected communities, giving resources to our partners so they can mobilize right away. Go ahead.

Niek: Maybe I can give a real quick example from Uganda. You know, there is this huge shortage of isolation spaces in any of the hospitals. And now, we are able, CRS Uganda is able to utilize this private funding to build those first pilot isolation spaces in the first hospitals to show the government, this is how it can be done. This is how it can be rolled out.

Kevin: Niek, when someone asks themselves, “How can I help? How can I make that greatest impact?” What are the things you would ask them to consider from the Uganda context?

Niek: You know, sometimes we feel like we’re pushed into a choice between continuing what the very important holistic and integrated work that we do to achieve integral human development, which is the work we do under normal conditions. And at the same time, we have to do the COVID response in ways that make sense in our current context, and with the value that we really add as CRS as an organization. And so, this is a time where we all need to really double down, and it’s not been easy.

We prepared, but then when the first case finally came and we had that presidential address, I called a meeting with some of my staff in the office and people were trembling. People were trembling with fear during that meeting. And I didn’t fully grasp it, to be honest. And then I talked a little bit more individually with people, and what I learned is this is a country that has gone through an absolutely devastating HIV and AIDS epidemic. They still have a few million people that are HIV-infected, but entire villages wiped out. And not only, you know like 15 years ago in a city in the North, they had a very serious Ebola outbreak that I definitely don’t remember, but 800 people died in that period in the city.

And so for people in Uganda, it’s not just a public health crisis. They have very vivid memories of how devastating these crises can be on their country. And so, in the short-term for us, we really have to focus on, “Okay, let’s get our own house in order to make sure that families are comfortable, that everybody feels safe, that our kids are home,” and things like that. And then everybody came back to the office and I was able to check in with people again, and they took a deep breath and they said, “Okay, we’re ready to go back to work.” And I think that’s what I personally think is unique about CRS and what I don’t really see in other organizations so much, is we are such a mission-driven organization. I keep saying, “If we don’t do it, then who will?”

We work with the Little Sisters of Saint Francis, I think the order is called, and they have started a micro-enterprise where women are sewing face masks that we’re buying in bulk from them and we’re giving them to our counterparts at Caritas or in the church, and hopefully we’re going to link them up to vendors and it turns into a business. To be honest, it’s been a hard transition. A hard one, because like Jennifer said, it’s worldwide and it’s scary. We have to push through and focus on both the long-term work and the short-term assistance that we need to provide to stop this pandemic.

Kevin: Niek, what programs are still running in Uganda that people depend on?

Niek: Well, I’m very proud to say that the only two programs that we have stopped is a project around strengthening the seed systems into country, which is basically supporting the private sector in seed development for the markets, and a project where U.S. farmers come visit Uganda and basically do exchange visits. It’s not a good time to do that.

For the rest, all of our critical work in HIV and AIDS, pediatric HIV and AIDS, protection of orphans and vulnerable children, and working with the Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development to protect children inside their families, to keep families whole, to keep them together, and to protect those children both from intra-household violence, or as well, if the children or some of the family members are affected by HIV. And that’s really critical. 

And the same for some of our agriculture programs out in the East. Now it’s the planting season, so if farmers don’t have access to seeds, what are they going to do? They won’t be able to grow their crop, and six months from now they’re going to be hungry. And so we have to find smart ways to continue that work, and so far, we are able to.

Kevin: I really want to thank Niek and Jennifer for joining us. You’ve given us an incredible amount to think about. Thank you for the work that you’re doing, that you’re going to continue to do. And thanks to all of our listeners. We appreciate your commitment, your compassion. We will continue to keep you and your families in our prayers. And please remember the people that we serve together, and our staff and partners. I hope you will join us next time.