For all of us in the Western world, the storm of COVID-19 is well and truly upon us. In countries like Kenya, however, the hailstones are only beginning to fall.
The first cases have been concentrated in urban Nairobi. But the staff at WE Charity’s Baraka Hospital know it’s just a matter of time before the Novel Coronavirus gets a stranglehold on the rural communities of Narok County, near the Maasai Mara in the Great Rift Valley. For them, it’s a race against the clock to prepare so when the onslaught arrives, a crisis doesn’t become a humanitarian disaster.
WE Charity is zeroing in on three urgent needs: building public awareness to support prevention, strengthening the health of the most vulnerable before they are exposed to disease, and ensuring health care workers have the resources they need.
“In Narok, WE has hit the ground running, but we still have a long ways to go,” says Layne Mahon, WE Charity’s Kenya Director of Operations. Mahon, a former general manager for Médecins Sans Frontières in Kenya, is helping lead WE’s pandemic response in the country.
The first vital step in getting ahead of the virus is spreading awareness. In this remote area, where mass communication is limited, officials from WE find that as many as 20 percent of the population have not even heard of COVID-19.
“It takes a lot of time to get people convinced. They are confused. We have always had a flu. They ask, ‘What is this other flu that is killing people?’” says Joseph Gachira, WE Charity’s Associate Director for Health.
Misinformation is rife
According to Joseph Gachira, WE Charity’s Associate Director for Health, the news reports that have filtered through have led many to believe that the pandemic is a problem only in Europe and North America, or that it only afflicts the elderly. Gachira oversees operations at Baraka Hospital, Kishon Medical Clinic and WE’s mobile clinics, and is helping to lead the organization’s strategy against the deadly virus. He says that some community members, seeing pictures of doctors in N95 masks, believe that’s enough to protect them. Even stranger beliefs have emerged.
“Some people see that hand sanitizer contains alcohol, so they believe if they drink alcohol it will protect them from the virus,” Gachira says, laughing.
“It takes a lot of time to get people convinced. They are confused. We have always had a flu. They ask, ‘What is this other flu that is killing people?’”
WE teams have set a goal of reaching over 300,000 people through South and West Narok. Training sessions and door-to-door visits teach residents about preventative measures, like physical distancing and proper hand washing techniques.
While COVID-19 spreads exponentially, prevention can, too.
The “train the trainer” approach
WE is educating respected community leaders to become prevention ambassadors in their communities. In the early days of this education campaign, through this ripple effect, WE reached more than 30,000 people—distributing more than 5,000 bars of soap along the way. For Gachira, the impact of the campaign has been incredible to watch. Within hours of a community training session, handwashing stations appear at the door of every house and shop. Residents are creating sophisticated washing systems out of repurposed jerry cans, normally used for water or fuel.
And in a traditionally gregarious and welcoming culture, people have curtailed handshakes and embraces in favor of namaste gestures, foot taps and elbow bumps.
The outreach mission faces significant hurdles. Four months of nearly non-stop rain have made many roads impassable and far-flung communities difficult to reach. While traveling recently, Mahon came across a WE supply truck so bogged down in mud it was almost on its side. It had to be dragged out with a tractor.
To help overcome travel barriers, WE is turning to technology, developing a text message campaign to deliver prevention tips to roughly 20,000 youth across the region via their phones. Mahon hopes that these young Kenyans will be empowered to become awareness educators in their families and communities.
Doctors and nurses at WE Charity’s Baraka Hospital are all too aware that prevention alone won’t be enough. When COVID-19 arrives, the health and lives of more than 80,000 people will be in their hands.
Gachira says the majority of critical beds are concentrated in Nairobi hospitals. With roads often obstructed, Baraka won’t be able to transfer COVID-19 patients—even if other hospitals are willing to take them. So the small team must rush to expand capacity. They’ve set up a sophisticated system that will see all patients pass through a screening zone before they are allowed through Baraka’s front gates. Those who show no symptoms of COVID-19 will be directed to the main facility. Anyone suspected of carrying the virus will be diverted to a newly-erected field hospital nearby, where a village of medical tents has already sprung up. This arrangement will allow Baraka staff to safely isolate and treat COVID patients. The organization is also in the midst of repurposing some of WE’s educational infrastructure facilities to help treat potential COVID patients.
Resources urgently needed
A hospital is nothing without supplies. Baraka workers are digging into their backup stocks of protective gear like masks and gloves. According to Gachira, much of the country’s stockpiles were sold to other countries like China at the start of the global outbreak.
“Now medical supplies are going to the highest bidder,” laments Mahon.
That’s why WE, with the support of World Medical Relief, is urgently loading shipping containers of medical supplies to support Baraka Hospital and Kishon Health Clinic. The first two containers of masks, gloves and other necessities will be dispatched by the first week of April. Another supplier will soon provide 10,000 KN95/N95 masks and a ventilator.
The remote nature of the region, situated in the southern part of the Great Rift Valley, will prove an advantage—with villages spread so far apart, it will be relatively difficult for the disease to spread from one to another as long as villagers observe isolation measures. However, if COVID-19 does find a way in, getting to patients will be another challenge. Along with impassable roads, WE Charity has just one ambulance for the region. If it transports an infected patient, it will have to be cleaned and disinfected, taking the vehicle offline for dangerously long periods.
The WE team will use a two-person flying squad—a driver and a health worker on a motorcycle—to be dispatched quickly to remote areas to deliver on-site assessment and, if necessary, preliminary treatment and quarantine measures.
All these different factors present a daunting challenge on an uncertain timeline. The storm could arrive next week. It could break tomorrow. Nevertheless, with hard work, careful planning, and the support of WE donors—not to mention a healthy dose of native Kenyan good humor—Gachira says his Baraka teammates are optimistic.
“We will manage. We will pass through this, together.”
KIERAN GREEN Kieran Green is a writer and Associate Director at WE. Passionate about social justice, he has served as a communications professional for Canadian non-profit organizations for over 20 years.