Where There’s Community Will, There’s a Way – Fighting Covid in Sierra Leone

Where There’s Community Will, There’s a Way – Fighting Covid in Sierra Leone

It’s July and we’re four months into the Covid pandemic. Sierra Leone and Bumpeh Chiefdom are living the same massive human health experiment we all find ourselves in.

But they’ve fared better than us for the same point in time after the pandemic reached each of our borders. Confirmed cases in Sierra Leone (per 100,000 population) are 50-fold fewer than the US to date, and mostly contained in the capital, Freetown and the surrounding area.

Thanks to your support, Bumpeh Chiefdom used Sherbro Foundation funding to take early and aggressive action. As of July 9, it can still report no confirmed Covid cases.

Following its Ebola experience, most of Sierra Leone’s 1584 confirmed Covid cases to date transferred to government isolation centers for the course of their infection – where they don’t infect more people. Contact tracing led to over 9000 people quarantined, with about 8000 released after 14 days with no infection.

But by the end of May, Covid moved around the country to all but one district beyond the Freetown area. Still, a ban on inter-district travel without a limited essential travel pass managed to keep over 60% of confirmed cases to the Freetown area.

20190131_105028Rural areas like Bumpeh Chiefdom have reported few, if any, cases. Life largely takes place outside where breeze offers natural dilution.

Population density is lower and 60% are young, under twenty-five years of age.

Of course, there’s little access to testing to verify how widely the virus actually spread. We now know youth is no protection, and young people are probably active asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.

Taking early action
Bumpeh Chiefdom’s Paramount Chief Charles Caulker’s didn’t wait to take action. He formed a chiefdom Covid committee in March and reinstated procedures successfully used to quell Ebola, while adding others.

IMG-20200620-WA0018Chiefdom meetings now take place with distancing and masks.

Checkpoints started monitoring nonresidents trying to enter the chiefdom in midMarch, before even a single case was confirmed in the country. This kept most people from high infection areas out. Local people also wrongly feared being quarantined if they traveled away from home, discouraging movement within the chiefdom.

Chief Caulker passed chiefdom bylaws in May, requiring social distancing and use of face masks in public – before the government took action. But just setting standards doesn’t mean people will follow them, or even hear about them or understand them.

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Safety teams for community-led prevention
In early June, 13 safety teams comprised of local leaders from across the chiefdom were trained on their Covid bylaws. Local health professionals and chiefdom Covid committee members went to every part the chiefdom, training 350 local leaders: section and village chiefs, heads of men’s and women’s societies, imams, youth leaders, checkpoint workers and others.

Picture5Trainers emphasized practical demonstrations, with participants practicing proper handwashing and mask use.

The safety teams were charged with teaching fellow residents how the Covid virus is transmitted and how social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing protects them.

Teams continue to monitor and enforce Covid procedures.

Taking training to the people in remote villages seldom happens. Rumors and myths about this unknown disease called Covid proliferated without TV, radio, newspapers or internet. Villagers didn’t know how the virus transfers or how to protect themselves.

Using locally known trainers speaking their own language invoked a level of trust. Health care trainers could convey much more understanding that in turn encourages more voluntary compliance.

Trainers explained people have the power to stop the virus through their own behavior. It’s in their hands.

Small group community training made people believers for an epidemic that has largely only been in cities. “Be an example now to your community,” trainers admonished.

Covid Safety team trg attendee VID-20200603_Moment (2)        Covid Safety team trg attendee woman VID-20200603_Moment(6)

“We learned so much for fighting against Covid-19. Especially about the interior (rural areas),” a youth leader, above left, said. “The interior is a problem with commitment of people. Not all people believe the sickness is in existence. Thank god brought you to communicate and explain how Covid-19 can come right into the interior.”

Asked what she learned, the woman, above right, said, “We learned about social distance and to not encourage ‘strangers’ (nonresidents who could be infected). And to wash our hands with soap and water to protect our families.”

Picture10 (3)Over 9000 Sherbro Foundation funded masks were distributed so residents can comply with chiefdom (and now government) requirements.

Picture3 (3)195 hand washing stations and soap were also given to village leaders for their public places. With no running water and few wells, this encourages handwashing where people convene.

Chief Caulker extends his “profound thanks” to all Sherbro Foundation donors for funding the program.

20200419_140951 (2)“I am very much delighted for the completion of the training of our section safety teams. I followed the process with keen interest and I am tremendously satisfied with the accomplishments. My section chiefs and their people constantly called me and expressed appreciation for the exercise while it was on.”

“They confessed that the training was the best ever conducted in the Chiefdom and it came out clearly … that participation was enormous and constructive. More importantly, they admitted acquiring the knowledge, skills, and tools to take on Covid ‘one on one’ for self-protection.”

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Community-led training brings value, as well as results. 350 local leaders comprising thirteen safety teams for every corner of the chiefdom were trained for less than $600! Trainers gave their time. Costs were mainly for participant and trainer transportation.

Sherbro Foundation encourages the chiefdom to build on the momentum of the safety teams with follow-up sessions. Community-led prevention is a powerful concept not only for Covid, but for prevalent and debilitating disease like malaria. Malaria weakens the immune system making people more susceptible to Covid, especially pregnant women and small children. Future sessions can reinforce Covid practices, and also empower villages to eliminate standing water and sleep under bed nets to avoid malaria.

Reopening the country
Like everywhere, Sierra Leone could only stay shut down so long. The majority of people live day by day, earning a dollar or two today so their families eat tomorrow. The pressure to resume local trading and international traffic is overwhelming. Sierra Leone is “reopening” its economy and borders this month. Increasingly, it gets pulled into the direction all West African countries are taking.

The inter-district travel ban was removed June 24, taking away Bumpeh Chiefdom’s main line of Covid defense. Flights and land borders will be opened shortly. Large outdoor markets and gatherings remain banned, including religious services, much to the objection of mosques and churches.

The back to school question
Sierra Leone now joins countries around the world in the massive experiment of sending school children back to school before the pandemic is stamped out.

School reconvened July 1 for three grades due to now take their national exams needed to move to the next level: 6th graders to junior high; 9th graders to senior high; and 12th graders seeking entry to higher education or to meet employer requirements for school completion exam scores.

facebook_1594170883672_6686437314070105164Our partner CCET-SL resumed its special all-day 12th grade school in its education center July 1, preparing Rotifunk’s graduating students for their national exam. Masks and distancing required.

Students will get a few weeks of classes before exams take place over July and August. The West African standard exams must be administered using the West African Examinations Council procedures and schedule – or risk the students losing a whole year until exams are offered again next year.

We’re awaiting word on how and when Sierra Leone schools will fully reopen in the fall.

Stay tuned for the next newsletter on Sherbro Foundation’s direction for the coming school year. You’ll see new things as our partner CCET-SL strives to keep improving the quality of education in the chiefdom. We’ll need your support more than ever.

— Arlene Golembiewski, Executive Director

Help Bumpeh Chiefdom fight Covid19 on May 5 – Giving Tuesday 2020

We can’t wait for Giving Tuesday in November to support charitable organizations as part of our Thanksgiving festivities.

If ever we needed a day to give, it’s now, while we’re all fighting Covid-19. The 2020 Giving Tuesday is moved up to May 5. 

Screenshot (131)Bumpeh Chiefdom, Sierra Leone, took immediate action in April against Covid-19 before any confirmed case reached them — and has kept the virus out so far. But it’s quickly spreading all around them.

Here’s how you can help Bumpeh Chiefdom in their fight to keep Covid-19 out:

>>  $20 will pay to locally make 50 face masks for chiefdom residents, especially market women. These women, like the one at left, are one of the most at-risk groups — like grocery workers here.

>> $25 buys 3 hand-washing stations for border checkpoints and public places. With no running water, water must be hand-carried to covered buckets with spigots for hand-washing.

>> $50 buys a no-touch infrared thermometer to take temperatures, important in a place with no Covid-19 testing ability.

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This month the chiefdom will require face masks to be worn in public, and to observe 6-foot social distancing.

They want to supply 10,000 masks to make it easy for residents to comply. They have local tailors busy making them.

Bumpeh Chiefdom must keep the Covid-19 virus out. They don’t have a health care facility that can treat this disease. There’s only one ventilator for the whole country!

Chiefdom leaders understand what’s needed to stop transmission of the virus. They need our help.

We’ve learned in this global pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe. The virus must be stamped out around the world.

On May 5th — Giving Tuesday 2020 — support Bumpeh Chiefdom’s Covid-19 fight if you can. It’s a day for global unity.  www.sherbrofoundation.org/donate

We deeply appreciate your help. Thank you!

COVID-19: What About Sierra Leone? Sherbro Foundation’s Response

Does lightning strike twice in the same spot? Does Sierra Leone have the ridiculous luck of seeing two major global epidemics of life-threatening viruses within six years?

Sierra Leone is one of ten or so countries with the highest — or lowest -– rankings demographers measure. Mortality, life expectancy, literacy. Sierra Leone is again the country with an extreme. But this time that’s good. Very good.

As I write this (March 27), Sierra Leone doesn’t have a single confirmed case of COVID-19.

It’s one 10+ African countries (perhaps 20 globally) still with no confirmed COVID-19. Sierra Leone does have testing capability, in the capital and a couple cities where cases are most likely to first appear.

Sherbro Foundation just wired money this week for our Bumpeh Chiefdom friends’ COVID-19 prevention program. But first, here’s what’s happened leading up to this.

Quick response
I never thought I’d say Sierra Leone’s deadly Ebola experience was good for something. But Sierra Leone kicked into gear and, week by week, instituted early COVID-19 protective measures as they saw the rest of the world reel around them. The government and the people remember well the practical steps of managing Ebola and have responded quickly for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Air travel is the source of COVID-19 transmission for now, and Sierra Leone only has one international airport. Passengers on flights arriving from countries with 50 or more reported cases were put into automatic 14-day quarantine. This started in February 3 with passengers originating from China. Only a few airlines normally fly to Sierra Leone. Some European airlines started canceling flights in March.

w1240-p16x9-Pres. Bio at Covid-19 Press conference (1)

As of March 23, the Sierra Leone government banned any flight from entering the country, and President Bio, above, declared a national state of emergency. 500 previous air travelers were still in quarantine.

During Ebola, the rest of the world isolated Sierra Leone and tried to keep its travelers out. Now the tables have turned. Sierra Leone is keeping the world out of its country.

With cases starting to grow in neighboring Liberia and Guinea, Sierra Leone’s land borders are closed as of March 27. Essential commodities can still pass through with strict supervision.

Ebola 2.0
So far, so good. Sierra Leone has a basic pandemic preparedness plan. Its health officials say strategies being used by coronavirus-affected countries emanated from their Ebola outbreak. And they have to be prepared for return of Ebola or Lassa Fever anytime.

The government has been working with WHO and other supporters to improve their health care capability since the Ebola epidemic, including developing three laboratories with virus testing capability. They have 370 COVID-19 test kits, and it’s stated they could get 20,000 more within 24 hours.

Sierra Leone is focusing on standard strategies to clamp down on early stages of epidemics: case management and preventive action.

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President Bio washes his hands, left, before entering Lungi International airport terminal during a recent inspection visit. In a country with little running water, even in cities, buckets fitted with spigots introduced for handwashing during Ebola have now returned.

“We have one of the best contact tracing and surveillance [systems],” said the Deputy Health Minister. “Before Ebola, we had no epidemiologists. Now we have 176.” An isolation ward is ready in a military hospital, and more could quickly be set up. People who set up and ran MASH-style Ebola treatment centers around the country are still there.

All is critical in a country with few ICU units, let alone ventilators, and only in the capital.

Prevention in Bumpeh Chiefdom
When the dominoes started quickly falling in the US two weeks ago, Bumpeh Chiefdom leader Paramount Chief Charles Caulker called together his chiefdom council. Rural areas like Bumpeh Chiefdom must interpret and apply government guidance largely defined for urban areas. The chiefdom council quickly agreed to proactive steps that aren’t new for them. The next day they were in effect.

Chief Caulker fell back on their past Ebola program, with appropriate changes. Like us, they’re emphasizing social distancing and hand washing.

Per the government’s order:
> Religious services, sports events and other gatherings were closed.
> All schools close as of March 31, when current exams end. National exams for 9th and
12th grades are canceled until further notice. Same for colleges and vocational schools.
> Our partner CCET ends its education programs like after-school tutoring March 31.

Chief Caulker also set up chiefdom border controls to monitor for possible infected travelers, especially those coming from cities and larger towns. But it’s not as stringent as during Ebola when no traveler or returning resident could enter.
> Checkpoints with handwashing stations verify a traveler’s residency or business purpose at all places vehicles enter. Travelers must wash their hands before passing through.
> The old customary practice of “strangers” (nonresidents) reporting to the local chief was reinstated, including stating who their local hosts are.

Youth are being mobilized to educate villages on COVID19, going door to door and avoiding village meetings. Handwashing is emphasized, with washing stations set up in public places.

Bringing home delivery to Rotifunk
Social distancing at the big weekly market was the most problematic. Throngs of buyers and sellers crowd Rotifunk every Saturday.

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It’s the town’s lifeblood, serving as the grocery, Walmart, Target and Ace Hardware for locals.

20190119_104700 (3)Outside traders bring in fish, the main protein source for most.

Villagers sell their produce to outside traders who supply Freetown and other cities. Outside traders could bring in COVID-19, but closing the market would be devastating.

When solving a problem, Chief Caulker tries to maximize the solution’s benefits. Kill two birds with one stone. Or three or four birds, if possible.

He needs to get essential food safely into Rotifunk and area villages. But he didn’t want to close the market, just thin the crowds.

First, he told chiefdom residents to use the market seven days a week and bring their goods to sell any day in the usual daily market, below; not just on Saturday.

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With business spread out over seven days, fewer outside traders come now. They can’t make as many sales on any one day so it’s not worth the long trip. Local villagers also get better prices for their wares with less competition.

But the biggest gain comes by taking the market to the people. Think of it as home delivery.

With Sherbro Foundation funding, Chief Caulker is expanding the Women’s Small Grant and Savings Program to add 40 more women traders. The women will use $100 grants to buy chiefdom fish or produce and sell them in designated neighborhoods, avoiding market crowds altogether. Creating job and income opportunities for the most impoverished local women is one of Chief’s ongoing priorities.

It’s a win-win all around. Outside traders who could be carrying in COVID-19 are reduced. Forty women are empowered to expand their trading businesses with capital and dedicated customers. Market customers and villagers who normally come to sell are protected by avoiding market crowds.

This solution will also keep more money in the local economy. Outside traders won’t take money outside the chiefdom. Rotifunk’s and the chiefdom’s overall economy will improve as the women traders succeed and use their increased purchasing power locally.

Pivoting for a compelling need
Sherbro Foundation is delighted to fund the 40 women traders with $100 grants.

 

IMG-20200322-WA0014 (2)They also become part of the savings plan of the new Women’s Small Grant Program, where women deposit part of each week’s earnings, left.

At the end of the year, their total savings will be like getting a new grant.

Sherbro Foundation is also contributing to daily food stipends for the checkpoint volunteers.

Bumpeh Chiefdom and Sierra Leone are hardly out of the woods with COVID-19. But, like us, they’re buying time until therapeutic drugs or the ultimate vaccine are found.

Sherbro Foundation pivoted from other issues and helped Bumpeh Chiefdom fight Ebola in 2014-15. Being a small organization, we can respond quickly. As in 2014, within two weeks of my first phone call with Chief Caulker on their COVID-19 plan, they will have our funding in hand and start acting.

Next week, women traders will introduce food home delivery to the chiefdom. Who knows where this goes long term?

One more thing the whole dreadful Ebola experience taught me: I know we’ll get through COVID-19. On the upside, a whole new program with the potential to transform Bumpeh Chiefdom may blossom – strengthening struggling women as successful small entrepreneurs.

— Arlene Golembiewski, Executive Director