Five things I’ve learned about community work during COVID-19
Michal Bar, IsraAID’s Head of Emergency Response, reflects on the uniqueness of the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on international humanitarian work. What drives me is the human interaction in each community. They teach me everything I need to know.
Over the past two years as IsraAID’s Head of Emergency Response, I’ve led programming for dozens of missions across the globe, from flooding in Southern India to wildfires in California, through a cyclone in Zimbabwe and, most recently, Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas last year. Indeed, I’m often one of the first on the ground, present for difficult moments of reckoning as communities come to terms with the impact of disasters.
Each situation is complex, and each event is different from the last as we meet different cultures, politics, capacities and needs. What drives me is the human interaction in each community. They teach me everything I need to know and partner with our teams to support them through the long, arduous recovery process.
The COVID-19 pandemic turned into a global crisis in the fullest sense with almost every country taking measures to prevent the devastating consequences of this outbreak. No one in the world is unaffected, and there isn’t a ‘safe’ place to which we can evacuate the most vulnerable. Most countries have declared a state of emergency and restricted air traffic in and out — actually taking globalization out of the equation. In this scenario we, as emergency response practitioners, ask ourselves: what could our role be and how can we support affected communities in this deglobalizing crisis of COVID-19?
We’ve never needed to respond to an emergency of this scale or spread.
As we at IsraAID respond to the threat of COVID-19 in each of our field offices around the world, and additionally in China, Italy, the U.S., and here in Israel, the challenges are different from what we’re used to. We’ve never needed to respond to an emergency of this scale or spread. But herein lies the immense learning potential of working in a global crisis:
1. Doubling down on local capacities
At IsraAID, wherever we work, we always strive to find a local partner to join forces as quickly as possible. We work shoulder-to-shoulder with national service providers and to enhance the capacities of local grassroots organizations to do what they do best — supporting their own communities. This way, we can assist local change makers while they fulfill their crucial role in their communities. The COVID-19 crisis forces us to stick to this important principle as we physically cannot send back-up teams to the affected areas.
For example, in Uganda and Kenya, facilitators from our Child Friendly Spaces are implementing mass outreach to combat misinformation and provide psychosocial support for children and their families. These key leaders were recruited from the host and refugee communities where they live, and trained by IsraAID staff — thereby widening the circle of service providers and bolstering local capacity.
The COVID-19 crisis is a time of shared experience and shared opportunity. We can discover new things from the diverse approaches worldwide and integrate each other’s lessons learned while supporting community leaders around the world.
2. Cross-cutting learning
Many of the needs across borders are similar, giving us the opportunity to learn and develop collaboratively. With an earlier outbreak in China, much of the world was given the opportunity to learn and prepare before the virus reached their country. Our teams in 20 locations around the world are sharing resources and adapting programs to their own contexts. IsraAID started providing webinars on psychosocial support for frontline workers in China, and those same resources were then translated and culturally adapted for use in Italy.
3. Cultivating innovative thinking and solutions
Our programs were built on the basic assumption of human contact. Homework clubs, income generating training, and water distribution points are all centers for human interaction and gathering. How do we create a common space if physical interaction is no longer an option? In the few last weeks we have seen communities find new ways to interact, utilizing online platforms, text messages, and leaflets to disseminate information.
Collectively thinking about the challenges of communication in places without connectivity has fostered new ideas and encouraged disruptive innovation. In South Sudan, where our team of local social workers support survivors of Gender-Based Violence, the main increase needed in their budget was for topping up staff members’ phone credit. This solution is simple, easy, and cheap — and is helping to support women across the country facing immense challenges.
Our programs were built on the basic assumption of human contact.
4. Disasters continue to happen — and we have to keep responding
While much of society has come to a standstill thanks to the pandemic, the risk posed by climate-related disasters — such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding — continues unabated. In early April, the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu was hit by Tropical Cyclone Harold, the second most powerful cyclone to impact the country on record. With the potential risks of COVID-19 leading the country to close air traffic, access to international aid is severely limited, leaving communities in even greater need of support. IsraAID’s local team, based in the country, have been able to respond in some of the worst-affected areas — in partnership with the Ministry of Health — while at the same time continuing to raise awareness and disseminate information about the risks of coronavirus
5. The pandemic exacerbates existing vulnerabilities: access is key
COVID-19 has been called “the great equalizer”, but the fact is that, in the face of a pandemic, shutdowns, and economic instability, not all communities have access to the resources they need to get through coronavirus. Vulnerable populations, including refugees, internally displaced people, and communities recovering from previous disasters, are less likely to receive accurate information about the virus, less likely to be able to socially distance, less likely to have the soap or safe water needed to reduce the spread of the virus, less likely to have internet connections, and less likely to have the resources needed to manage the effects of an economic downturn. They need our continued support, both for the current crisis and as we begin to look ahead to what comes next.
Michal Bar is IsraAID’s Head of Emergency Response