Kevin Kostic: Hello, this is Kevin Kostic from Catholic Relief Services, joining you from my luxurious basement as we continue to follow the current COVID-19 guidelines for physical distancing.
Welcome to our second podcast in a series designed to bring us together and keep you up to date on all of 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.
As we are expanding efforts globally to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and help affected communities recover, we wanted to share with you how our experiences in other crises, like that of the West Africa Ebola crisis, informs some of the ways that we approach our response today.
From 2014 to 2016, Ebola devastated West Africa, challenging and changing every aspect of life from birth to death. And even though those were very hard and dark times, we were able to support communities and local health facilities to develop stronger systems and interventions. And while COVID-19 presents many unknowns, as an agency we are committed to rising to the call of urgency in this crisis, applying innovations, lessons learned, and working in hand with communities to ensure their dignity and empowerment. Thanks to you, we’re already there.
Last time we kicked off our Vision series by talking about the impact of COVID-19 on our programming and how we respond in emergencies. Today, we’re going to take a look at the latest developments of COVID-19, but with the insight from two of our CRS colleagues who lived through or worked at the front lines of the West Africa Ebola crisis in 2015.
Joining us today from his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, is Donal Reilly, Director of Technical Assistance for Emergencies, and Daniel Mumuni, Chief of Party for the USDA McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program in Sierra Leone, is joining us from the CRS office in Freetown. Welcome to you both.
Donal Reilly: Thank you.
Daniel Mumuni: Thank you very much.
Kevin Kostic: Donal, let’s, let’s start with you. With COVID-19 in most of the countries where we work, what are you seeing and hearing from our colleagues and partners on the ground?
Donal Reilly: Thanks Kevin. The unique thing about COVID-19 is that it’s a global pandemic, so it’s impacting everyone almost the same. So what we’re feeling here in America in terms of the impact on health systems and then the fallout from that (the economic impact as well) are very similar to what you are hearing about from overseas. The difference being of course is the ability of many of the countries we work in to be able to meet those new demands.
So there’s definitely very big concerns around food security going forward as a result of the economic fallout. What we’re hearing from the field also is that almost all CRS country programs are still operational. A few had to close, but most are either back working or working in a different way. Some essential programs have never closed. There are large feeding programs in Ethiopia and South Sudan, which is really lifesaving and essential work, still carrying on. So a lot of projects adapted because we have constituents already.
Kevin Kostic: So I was hearing on the news this morning about the cyclone that’s going to be hitting India and Bangladesh.
Donal Reilly: Yeah, Cyclone Amphan is hitting the coast of India and Bangladesh as we speak and it’s a category 2. And it’s Caritas working—they’re supporting 51 evacuation centers. This is exactly what you don’t want to be doing at the moment: bringing people together in evacuation centers when you’re trying to also apply social distancing as a way of prevention.
Kevin Kostic: And the choices that a family has to make have to be incredible. Right? Because you’re either like, “Do I want to go to the evacuation center or to contribute to social distancing?” And how do you sort of balance all of that?
Donal Reilly: It’s a very difficult choice. And the governments have to make these decisions as well. And it’s a very tough choice to make because they know they’re doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing in this pandemic.
Kevin Kostic: Thanks, Donal. Daniel, I’ve seen some photos coming out of Sierra Leone showing physical distancing kind of like what we were seeing before. So how are you and the CRS teams adapting responses in Sierra Leone to keep our programming going in the midst of the COVID-19?
Daniel Mumuni: Thank you very much, Kevin. I’ll just start by giving African adage that says when the music changes, so does the dance. As most of you might know, we mainly work in very hard-to-reach countries. And so, with a crisis like this, the urgency for food and support is exacerbated, and I think it’s quite similar to the U.S. and elsewhere. So, in Sierra Leone, we are running a very large-scale school feeding program. On a given day we feed about 50,000 school children and 1,500 teachers. And these are hot lunches provided in schools.
Now with COVID-19, schools are closed. There are government restrictions for movement, and so we can’t move around. So, in Sierra Leone, we’ve managed to adapt our programing in such a way that we’re targeting the urgent needs for the communities we serve, particularly the women and children. As schools are closed, there’s need for us to see how we can get food to these communities. And this is very important because, unlike in the U.S. and elsewhere where food can be stocked up, when there’s a lockdown in Sierra Leone people struggle because they live on their daily wages in the midst of food insecurity.
And so what we’re doing now at CRS is ensuring that every day we’re providing take-home rations to these 50,000 school children and their families. And that comes to a lot of our logistics, receiving passes from the government, ensuring that transporters can deliver food to these communities, getting our staff lined up, training them, integrating COVID-19 prevention strategies and messaging in the process.
And showing social distance in this can be very difficult, just practically speaking. In the morning, usually by 6:00 a.m., people are lined up already waiting for their food rations with the fear that the food will run out. And so, ensuring that we are socially distancing, in some communities it is easier than others, especially for larger communities.
Besides the food, we also look in on how we can sustain learning. In the U.S. you have online schooling. In Africa, and especially in Sierra Leone, we don’t have these services. And so CRS is working with the national government to provide radio classrooms and education broadcasts from the national capital. So CRS provides their solar lamps and supports teachers to facilitate these interactions. Now this is very important also because of other reasons. In some of these communities during this crisis children are put into early marriages or into other economic activities to supplement family resources and food security. And so keeping the kids engaged, providing food for their families—we are doing all of this in concert with the national government.
Kevin Kostic: That’s great to hear. Yeah. And I’ve got a 10- and 12-year-old at home I’m trying to imagine sitting so attentively to a radio message, but it’s hard enough to keep them focused on just a screen. And Daniel, as you mentioned at the beginning, Sierra Leone suffered tremendous loss and devastation to the local economy during the Ebola crisis a few years ago. What was your experience like during that time? How does that inform your perspective in this current emergency?
Daniel Mumuni: Yeah. Ebola was very devastating. It actually started off in Liberia, spilled over to Guinea, and in no time, it was in Sierra Leone. And about 14,000 people were infected during this time. And I mean I know that figure may seem very insignificant in comparison to what is going on around the world now. But, you know, Ebola was far more deadly.
Schools were again closed for one full year. The medical services could not contain the situation because of the number of cases coming up and the poor preparedness. The biggest challenge was really the need for social distancing and isolation.
Community members wanted to take care of their own. People did not want to die in isolation because of the cultural meaning of death. And so we had situations where some chiefs fined people for reporting cases. And so they set up outposts where husbands and wives and children were responsible for taking care of the sick people in communities.
And this made it very, very difficult for the government to contain. In fact, in some cases there’s one incident where somebody actually jumped off an ambulance just because he didn’t want to go to an isolation center, and of course he met his untimely death. And so this was really, really difficult time for the country.
But at the same time, a lot of protocols were put in place with support from organizations including CRS. Hand washing was intensified at the time. There were safety protocols at the point of entry, the borders. And people started practicing social distancing in bigger cities. So when COVID-19 happened it was very easy to trigger some of the protocols that were developed at the time.
For me, the lowest point was really the amount of death we saw. There were thousands of people who lost their lives across different age ranges. They couldn’t bury their dead properly. They couldn’t wash them, as is usually done, and they couldn’t celebrate. And in Africa we usually call it celebration of life. There are two very important moments of life: the time you are born and when you die. And so for many people it was just heart-wrenching to not being able to accord the needed dignity for burials. And this is where CRS also came in strongly because we were responsible for ensuring dignified burials.
Kevin Kostic: Donal can you pick up the story from there then, because I think Donal you were on site and helping to address this issue of how do we provide a safe and dignified way for people to be able to mourn the loss of their loved one?
Donal Reilly: You think you’ve seen it all when you’re in humanitarian work for a while and then suddenly you turn up and one of your jobs then is to figure out how to bury people. That was a new for me to work in. But it became, as Daniel pointed out, it became very apparent early on that the cultural ways of handling burials had to change if Ebola was to be defeated. And people were used to burying people around their homesteads, especially in the rural areas. And so we needed to change that so that the proper handling of bodies was practiced.
But then how do you change that sort of cultural behavior to one that’s dignified and one where people see that what we’re doing is not like creating mass graves, but what we’re trying to do is show that we were very much trying to respect your loss and understand the circumstances which you’re on. And how do we help you transition through that period of grief?
Kevin Kostic: So we’re here in the United States and often times the places we’re talking about can feel very far away. What value does CRS, this expression of the American Catholic Church, bring to communities and the people of Sierra Leone that you think would be important for us to know and understand?
Daniel Mumuni: Well let me just start off by saying that when you walk into Sierra Leone, CRS is a household name. We are very consistent in the support that we bring to these communities. And we also target our most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities, people who are forgotten. In Sierra Leone, they would remind you of what we did during the civil war by providing a safe housing for them; during Ebola, what we did in terms of dignified burials and all the other support we offered them. So there’s a deep sense of solidarity. You walk into a government office and the first thing they tell you, well, “You know, I’m sitting on this chair today because of what CRS did for me.”
The President of Sierra Leone recently traveled five hours to a field office to launch the next iteration of a school feeding program. When we got there, he expressed that he wanted to come to demonstrate his support for CRS, the work that we do and the feeding we provide because he received feeding as well—a school feeding from CRS when he was a young kid. And he’s president today because of that.
And so we are working across different layers. One is ensuring that we are meeting the urgent needs of people. And then showing that we are building institutional capacity of the national government to sustain and scale up programs that we are involved in. One other aspect that I want to talk about is that sense of care and solidarity. Last year I had the opportunity of meeting so many Catholics around the U.S. I walked into this school and met a young kid called Grace Harris. And after talking about the story from Sierra Leone, about a young girl who was struggling and how we were working to support her and thousands of other girls, on my way out this girl runs up to me with an envelope and says, “Mr. Daniel, can you take this back to Sierra Leone?” And it was an expression of solidarity based on her own experience. She went through the same experience as this young girl. And she eloquently wanted this girl to not give up, to believe in herself, and to remember that she’s got a friend in the U.S.
Fast forward, I went to the field with Sean Callahan, the President of CRS, and when we presented the letter, by this time, this young lady called Kumba had lost both her dad and mom and was now an orphan. She was so moved by that spirit of solidarity expressed from an unknown person that she shed tears with her grandmother, who said that without CRS’ support, this girl would not have an opportunity to become the nurse that she wants to be. I present this story to just emphasize how we’re providing not only support to the field, but also creating this spirit of solidarity.
Kevin Kostic: Daniel, I understand your family has been affected by this emergency and that you’ve been separated from them. Is that right?
Daniel Mumuni: Yeah, absolutely. When all of this started, CRS offered an opportunity for people who wanted to leave to do so. And with a single voice everybody wanted to stay on to ensure that we delivered the much-needed support on the ground. So for four months now I’ve not been able to see my own family.
I’ve got a wife and two daughters who are separated from me now. And it’s not just me. There are several of my other colleagues who are out there providing the necessary support on the field to realize our mission.
Kevin Kostic: Thanks so much. Thank you for that sacrifice, Daniel. Donal, shifting over to you, it’s kind of hard to wrap my head around your life, in a sense. At a moment’s notice you’ll be jumping off to various emergencies around the world. So, when you’re in the field, what do you notice? What do you think people would be interested to know about what makes CRS unique in these kinds of contexts?
Donal Reilly: Well, you can ask my wife to have to wrap her head around my life sometimes.
There’s lots of things that makes it stand out a lot. I think the first thing is our presence. We’re in over 100 countries with our partnerships as well. Our partnerships are probably one area that really allows us to operate and get on the ground quickly. I can think of lots of different responses where the first place we land is we go to the bishop, the diocesan head and Caritas, and we work with them. And often they’re already responding. I mean in many cases, in Liberia, in the Ebola response, the Catholic hospital there was at the forefront of the fight against Ebola. And we were immediately able to offer support like with logistics, and warehousing, and infrastructural support to them.
We often can just hit the ground running and not having to wait and observe and see what’s happening. We’ve got partners who are already engaged. And that’s almost in every emergency I’ve been in. Our private funds are a huge part of this as well. We don’t have to wait for public donors to come to us and approve of a proposal, which can take weeks if not months. We can hit the ground with our private funds and start immediately providing assistance and support. And we do that all the time.
We have great access to local governments. As Daniel was mentioning, like the respect we have in Sierra Leone is amazing, but a lot of countries are very similar. We have a very strong reputation with national governments for being an agency that sticks true. We’re not one that just comes in and leaves because we have this development and emergency. We’re there for the long-term and that builds lots of great relationships on the ground and really helps us to navigate and to get operational quickly as well.
I think the other uniqueness that I find is what I often call our DNA. And that comes from our integral human development and how we apply that to the field. We focus on the family and the community. And we have a very much—try to have an integrated response to our programming, looking at the capacity of that family and always trying to work for how we can do our response in a dignified way as well. Not about just like, “we need to chalk up numbers and show what we’ve done.” No. It’s about how we do it. And the sort of dignity of the people we’re trying to help, and support is hugely important to how we work.
Kevin Kostic: That’s helpful to know. Do you believe that Africa can escape the high mortality we are seeing in the U.S.? Or do you think it’s simply a matter of time before COVID becomes an epidemic there? This is future looking, but what would be your projections in terms of COVID-19’s impact on Africa?
Daniel Mumuni: We’re quite surprised that it’s not ravaging across Africa as earlier predicted, but we also cautiously are being optimistic about the whole situation because testing is not as rampant here as it is in the U.S. and elsewhere. So we believe that there are far more cases than are being reported. But again, we’re lucky to see that currently the mortality rates are not that high.
Cases are rising significantly and it’s difficult from a technical perspective to say if the worst is yet to come. We are preparing ourselves and all the protocols are being put in place to at least mitigate any dire effects in future.
Kevin Kostic: And of course, if it does hit, I mean just the safety net not being there—
Daniel Mumuni: Exactly. Yeah.
Kevin Kostic: —the health systems and being able to support those who are affected. There’s so many auxiliary set of issues that would complicate it even more so in the context in Europe or in the States.
We do need to wrap up, but I did want to provide you just a few moments, if you had any final words or thoughts you wanted to share. So, Donal, any final words or thoughts?
Donal Reilly: Really, just thanking everyone for their support. This is what makes CRS unique and how we can get operational and really support people early on in these types of crises. There’s a really tough road ahead, especially around the economic impact and the food security that this is going to bring over. So we’re just very thankful for the support we can get from our constituents in America. And what that support allows us to do.
Daniel Mumuni: I want to join Donal in thanking all our supporters. We are and we do what we do because of the support you provide us. And being in the field, I’m seeing the transformational effects all the support your offering is making. But during crisis, as I described today about our response to COVID-19, in fact, we’re saving lives and securing the future of several thousands of children. And for that I want to say thank you on behalf of all the people we serve—the millions of people we serve across the world.
It’s not an end in itself—it’s a means to an end, which is the difference we make in people’s lives. We are very appreciative for the support you offer to transform lives, and to provide the needed safety net, and in CRS you have a partner that is committed and value driven. And together we are making strong waves and transforming lives in the field. So thank you for all that you continue to do.
Kevin Kostic: I want to thank Daniel and Donal for joining us today. And we thank you for tuning in to the Vision podcast. We deeply appreciate your commitment, compassion and support. We’ll continue to keep you and your families in our prayers.
When I’ve gone into the field, we often get thanks from those we serve. Those thanks really belong to you. You make this lifesaving work possible. Throughout this podcast, you’ve heard about difficult choices families have to make every day in regards to health, safety and the future. We’re grateful that you decided to make a choice to spend some time with us today and for continuing the commitment to provide the help that’s so urgently needed. Until next time.