How we adapted our work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With over ten million confirmed cases worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis affecting all our programmes, and all the countries in which we work. The communities we serve are now faced with multiple challenges – from the risk of contracting the virus itself and its impact on overstretched health services, to the knock-on repercussions from containment measures on health, education and livelihoods systems.
We are adapting our work to respond to these new challenges – both in the immediate and longer-term – while ensuring that we continue to work towards our vision of a fair world for everyone.
Engaging vulnerable communities
One of the most effective ways we can help combat the spread of COVID-19, and limit its impact on fragile health systems, is by building people’s knowledge and awareness. We’re promoting preventative action in communities, including practising good hygiene and physical distancing measures, in line with national government guidelines and recognised best practice.
From posters to podcasts, we’re using a range of channels to reach people with the information they need to stay safe and healthy. In Sierra Leone, for example, we’re working closely with the government to share advice, encouraging people to follow the latest guidelines and raising awareness through community announcements and poster campaigns.
Reaching the most marginalised
Our work is always focused on supporting the most vulnerable people in society – but now, more than ever, it’s critical that we take steps to ensure that no one is left behind.
We know that crises like this have a disproportionate impact on the most marginalised groups – including people with disabilities, women, children, people living with HIV, and those in prisons, refugee camps and hard to reach areas. We are committed to ensuring social inclusion and gender equality as part of all our interventions.
We’re ensuring that all the messages we share are not only accurate, but also culturally appropriate, gender responsive, available in local languages, and accessible. In Rwanda, for example, we’re working with volunteers, community representatives and partner organisations to support Deaf people across the country, by adapting accurate information into sign language videos and establishing a video call hotline.
Supporting health systems
Health workers are at increased risk of developing COVID-19 – and as well as the danger to their own lives, high rates of illness amongst medical staff reduces the capacity of the healthcare system when it’s needed most.
Frontline healthcare professionals are already at the heart of our ongoing maternal and newborn health (MNH) and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programmes. Now, we’re also equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need not only to keep themselves safe whilst delivering essential services, but also to identify symptoms and prevent transmission amongst the communities they serve.
We’re especially conscious of the increased risk of domestic and gender-based violence during periods of increased isolation, so we will train community health workers to handle incidents, refer where needed, and provide psychosocial support.
We’re also working to anticipate, and mitigate against, future challenges that will arise after the initial emergency response. We will continue our work to strengthen health systems, and advocate for people’s access to essential MNH and SRHR services that have been disrupted.
Businesses around the globe are being hit by lockdown measures, supply chain disruptions and staffing issues – and entrepreneurs, farmers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are especially vulnerable. We’re supporting small business owners, young entrepreneurs and apprentices to reach customers, find alternative incomes, and provide their products safely.
In Tanzania, for instance, we’re supporting small business owners to adapt by training them to produce quality soap and sanitiser, which they can sell to local people at fair prices. Through a ‘train the trainer’ approach, this knowledge will cascade through communities, so reaching over 50,000 people.
We are also supporting SMEs to look to the future, and identify and respond to emerging opportunities. We will focus on resilient recovery efforts, supporting households, businesses and markets to rebuild and flourish.
Closures around the world mean over one billion learners are currently out of school. Losing access to formal education – and the opportunities for protection it provides – puts children and adolescents, particularly girls, at increased risk. Our volunteers will work in communities to raise awareness of key issues, such as gender-based violence and the importance of sharing domestic duties between boys and girls. We are also prioritising activities which provide mental health and psychosocial support for young people.
In the long term, interruptions to education can lead to increased levels of underage employment, as some learners never return to school, and the loss of valuable opportunities for young people to develop the skills they need for the future. It’s essential that we continue to support as many children as possible to keep learning throughout this crisis.
We’re harnessing our experience in using innovative approaches to empower marginalised learners – whether reaching thousands of children in rural Malawi with tablet technology, or supporting young Rohingya refugees to keep up their education in a fragile environment – to develop novel solutions that keep children learning. National and international volunteers are working remotely to develop material in local languages, which is shared on social media and the VSO School app.
To ensure our interventions are accessible to all, including those without internet, we’re also developing alternative materials and ways of sharing them. As part of the Building Learning Foundations project, volunteers in Rwanda are working with the government to adapt lessons from the curriculum into content for TV and radio broadcasts, so children can keep up with their lessons whilst at home.
Alongside supporting people to stay safe and overcome the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic, we’re continuing our ongoing work to strengthen the essential systems that underpin society – including healthcare, education, communication, infrastructure and social safety nets.
Essential to this is enabling people to understand their rights to support, and empowering them to hold governments and other institutions to account. In particular, we will work to safeguard access to services for the most vulnerable and marginalised.
We will ensure that through all our programmes we are continuing to build communities’ resilience, focusing on developing people’s capacity through sustainable actions, rather than creating dependency.
How we’re working
Working through volunteers
Where it is safe to do so, and in line with national government rules, we will continue to work directly with communities.
Volunteers who are already based in communities are key to delivering this approach: our volunteers form deep relationships, built on trust, with the people with whom they work. It’s through these strong relationships that we're working to tackle the crisis together – ensuring that our response plans are driven by the needs of the people we serve, and using our existing networks to share essential messages. Most of our community and national volunteers have been able to continue their work since the crisis began.
Almost half of our international volunteers have continued with their placements; in some cases volunteers have chosen to stay in-country, whereas others are now working remotely, after having returned home. We are working to adapt our approach and develop innovative ways of working through remote and online volunteering.
The safety and wellbeing of all our volunteers – along with that of our staff, and the primary actors we work with – is paramount. We’re providing everyone with extra guidance, which is regularly reviewed by our expert duty of care team.
Collaborating with our partners
We will continue working with other organisations to promote volunteering best practice, coordinate joint responses, and create the biggest possible impact together. We’re exploring opportunities to collaborate with technology and communications partners to deliver information in innovative ways, establish feedback mechanisms, and support primary actors to share content they have developed through our platforms.
We recognise that there are times when our partners may be better placed to reach the most vulnerable or isolated groups, and in these cases we will work to build their capacity to deliver activities.