Episcopal Relief & Development is working with program partners, both in the United States and around the world, to adapt programming in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Our programs rely on partners visiting communities in-person for a range of activities including conducting home visits, collecting family and child health data, supporting savings groups, distributing emergency supplies after a disaster, and teaching early childhood development principles. Particularly in remote areas, face-to-face contact is a part of how Episcopal Relief & Development and our partners work. As a result, we are reevaluating how we can continue to support the communities we work with while protecting the safety of our partners, staff and program participants.
Health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization, have recommended physical distancing as a way to slow the infection rate of the coronavirus. Additionally, many local authorities, both in the United States and abroad, have instituted guidelines to stay at home or to shelter in place.
In mid-March, our program staff reached out to all our partners to learn how the coronavirus was impacting their communities specifically and to support them as we navigate the pandemic together. We received over 100 responses from 44 countries around the world.
“We were encouraged to hear from so many partners from Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America & the Caribbean and the United States,” said Nagulan Nesiah, Senior Program Officer, Disaster Response & Risk Reduction for Episcopal Relief & Development. “Their responses were a reminder that we are truly one Church body, all called to share God’s love with our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Several themes came up in the responses to the survey. Most importantly, all our program partners affirmed their role in continuing to serve the most vulnerable communities and seeing themselves as a trusted source of information to those they serve. Protocols are being set in place in order to continue to safely serve these communities, and we remain committed to our work.
It is also clear from responses that the coronavirus is having a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, many of whom lack the resources to stockpile food and supplies. Many partners shared concerns about the loss of income that is faced by those who cannot work due to physical distancing measures or the closure of non-essential businesses. Some governments are closing borders to protect their citizens from the coronavirus. In several countries, for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Myanmar and Venezuela, daily and weekly shopping trips in many communities often depend on crossing the border. Border closures create additional food insecurity.
Several partners expressed that connectivity and technology is a barrier in some of the communities that we work in. Our program team is supporting partners in developing systems and strategies to take advantage of technology where possible and to find alternative, safe ways of responding in areas where connectivity is a challenge. These connectivity challenges can also make consistent communication with some of our partners difficult. One partner in the Philippines reported needing to travel one kilometer from their home in order to connect to the internet.
Other partners shared concerns about facing the pandemic and the reality of physical distancing in communities without running or clean water, where many are living with HIV, malaria and other illnesses that compromise the immune system. In many countries, the health care system is not equipped to respond to such a crisis.
As an organization, we are already responding by developing or enhancing tools to support partners as they serve their communities. These tools promote spiritual, humanitarian relief, equipment, health messaging and pastoral ministries while conforming to physical distancing and other public health guidelines. For example, safe practices can address how to feed vulnerable households while minimizing the spread of the virus or how communities can develop a timetable so that water collection at wells are spaced apart to avoid gatherings of people.
Additional specific needs will become clear as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. Our team is already beginning to hear from partners such as the Anglican Diocese of Guinea about tangible ways Episcopal Relief & Development can support them in response to the needs created by the coronavirus. We will continue to share updates in the coming weeks and months.
“The situation created by the novel coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented and much is uncertain right now,” said Abagail Nelson, Executive Vice-President for Episcopal Relief Development. “And yet, God is good. All the time, God is good. God is with us. God is calling us all to be together with our acts of love: our time, our talents and our treasure. And Episcopal Relief & Development is responding to this call.”