Preparing for Coronavirus in Kenya & Uganda

IsraAID Kenya & Uganda Director Annet Apio describes the situation at the moment in both countries, where IsraAID works with refugees from across the region

Annet at Kakuma Refugee Camp. Photograph by Yannick Ruhimbasa

Annet has more than eight years of experience working with marginalized communities. She recently spent two years as IsraAID’s Field Coordinator in Kakuma Refugee Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement, overseeing a mostly-refugee team running three child friendly spaces. Kakuma and Kalobeyei are home to more than 190,000 refugees.

Annet is now IsraAID’s Country Director for Kenya and Uganda, based in Nairobi and managing the organization’s work in both countries. Here she describes her concerns for the communities IsraAID’s team works with and the effects the coronavirus pandemic might have on the well-being of refugees in the region:

The capacity of health structures in both developing and developed countries are being put to test by Covid-19. In Kenya and Uganda, IsraAID is assessing some of the potential questions the pandemic poses for refugee operations.

Support for vulnerable groups must be prioritized. For IsraAID, that means the refugees we work with, who live in often-overcrowded, under-resourced camps, with limited access to medical care and safe water.

According to UNHCR, there are over 24.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of January 2020, 491,258 were hosted in Kenya and 1,394,678 in Uganda. In the wake of the spread of Covid-19, both Kenya and Uganda have tightened entry regulations for both citizens and internationals. Both countries, however, have an issue with porous borders through which refugees cross. Additionally, there is the insufficiency of screening equipment, testing facilities, and training of medical personnel — which all are crucial for the management of the disease.

Even though the region has relatively few confirmed cases so far, this is likely to change. Both Uganda and Kenya have put in place drastic measures, including travel bans, social distancing, and the closing of services, to try reduce exposure.

These new regulations that encourage social distancing do not really work within the refugee camp context. If the virus were to spread to Kakuma, it would be very difficult to contain.

Water, for instance, is only available from communal boreholes. This means standing in line and getting water at certain times of the day. It is the same story for picking up food distributions. Kakuma camp’s population cannot avoid gathering in public — it is how they get their essentials.

On top of the need to collect basic necessities like water and food, refugees in Kakuma have no access to hand sanitizer and, for some, even soap is in short supply. Without the income to purchase these hygiene products, they rely heavily on aid from UNHCR, limiting further the capacity to reduce the spread of coronavirus if it reaches the camp.

Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northwest Kenya. Photograph by Lior Sperandeo

UNHCR has reduced activities to those deemed critical for emergency response and life-saving, with the priorities being WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene), Health, Nutrition, and Food.

IsraAID, with operations in Kakuma Camp and Kalobeyei Settlement area in Northwestern Kenya and Palorinya settlement in Northwestern Uganda, has been forced to halt its child-friendly services in order to limit exposure of the virus to children in both locations, in adherence to the government’s regulations.

While many organizations are now moving their work online, the population of Kakuma camp has limited access to the internet and most of our services involve heavy personal interaction. The majority of our field staff in Kakuma are refugees themselves.

In terms of the daily life of the refugees we work with, this means that children will not have access to child protection services and field staff and facilitators will be without work to do for an indefinite period of time.

Children play at one of IsraAID’s Child Friendly Spaces in Palorinya, Uganda. Photograph by Bwette Gilbert Daniel

Then there is the issue of health. Malaria and malnutrition may affect the level of vulnerability to COVID-19. The past few years have seen surges in both malaria and malnutrition cases in Kakuma around April-June, with this trend expected to continue this year following long droughts and sporadic rains. This comes at the worst possible time.

The Covid-19 threat demands quick action. In the past years, IsraAID has donated food supplements through our health partner, the International Rescue Committee, to respond to the malnutrition surge. This year, we are engaging our health partners to lobby and avail much-needed health support to reduce the level of vulnerability to the crisis.

It is paramount in this critical moment for the public and private sector, including the civil society organizations, government agencies, charities, and companies to collaborate on actions, while heavily engaging the public to spread awareness about the disease and respond promptly to the needs it presents.

We look forward to re-opening our child friendly spaces as soon as the authorities deem these activities safe. In the meantime, we are finding ways to keep working with these communities while the coronavirus-related limitations last.

In Uganda, our team will provide handwashing stations — with soap and hand sanitizer — and raise hygiene awareness in the community to combat misinformation and promote public health. We give out leaflets to households in a range of languages — English, Madi, Juba-Arabic, and Lugbara — in order to reach as much of the community as possible. In Kenya, in addition to food supplements to combat malnutrition, we are planning to donate other basic and medical supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer, malaria test kits, and more.

IsraAID is committed to supporting refugees in Kenya and Uganda for as long as we are needed.

Stories from IsraAID's work providing life-saving emergency relief and durable solutions for populations affected by crisis. http://www.israaid.org