By Kevin Naughton
GOAL humanitarian worker, Dutchman Bisani (48) has seen his job in his native Malawi change significantly in recent months thanks to COVID-19.
Working with GOAL since 2013, Dutchman was based in the rural Nsanje District working on WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) programmes until the onset of COVID-19 in March. This role involved Dutchman supporting local communities to have safe and reliable access to water.
Due to his WASH experience, which was seen as essential in the fight against COVID-19, he was transferred to Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city. Here he was to work with a GOAL team supporting communities in densely populated informal settlements to prevent the spread of the virus.
With limited healthcare in Malawi, promoting proper hand hygiene is one of the key elements in virus prevention. Dutchman is working to ensure communities have access to water so they can practice good hand hygiene to prevent contamination. Dutchman says: “In my role as WASH officer, I have experience dealing with infectious diseases such as Cholera. I am now able to share that experience with my colleagues as we combat COVID-19 together.”
On top of this, Dutchman works closely with local community groups, training them in disease prevention techniques and ensuring they adhere to basic rules such as social distancing which is a huge challenge in densely populated urban settings. These groups include market organisers and barber shop and salon workers, places where people gather together indoors, putting them more at risk of the virus. Throughout Blantyre people have responded well to GOAL’s training and information.
Central to GOAL’s COVID-19 prevention work is the Community-Led Action (CLA) approach developed by GOAL during the Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014. As part of the CLA approach, Dutchman and his team have trained local people to become community champions and to spread COVID-19 prevention awareness messaging to fellow community members. Each neighbourhood has its own community champion and to ensure social distancing, the size of community groups have been reduced. Dutchman says: “The CLA training provides clarity and structure to our operations which makes the job easier. This is a similar approach used by GOAL in Sierra Leone to combat Ebola”.
Part of the CLA approach has seen 40 young people trained to help educate their peers. Through the barber shops where many men congregate, these youth champions have allowed GOAL to reach younger people who often would not be as engaged with their community as their elders.
Blantyre city is home to a large population of over 800,000 people and it has been a challenge to get COVID-19 safety messaging to as many people as possible. Dutchman says they have used mobile vans, public address systems, flyers and posters to spread the word about COVID-19 prevention and how to stay safe. Through phase one of the CLA approach more than over 250,000 people were reached in the city and over 57,000 farmers in the countryside.
Day-to-day working life has changed dramatically for Dutchman as a result of COVID-19. The GOAL Blantrye office has introduced a shift system with staff working from home two to three days a week to reduce large numbers being in the office together at one time.
Those who are deemed high risk (e.g. for health reasons) are working remotely indefinitely, and all meetings, including weekly programmes team meetings, take place online. “It is definitely a new way of working. This week we had an all-team meeting, with over 70 people online. In addition, we have added handwashing stations in the office and have made the wearing of masks in public spaces in the office mandatory.”
Dutchman continues to work in the field each day but has had to reduce the number of people he comes in contact with. The Government has limited the numbers of people who can gather together which has proved challenging, but it does not stop Dutchman from trying to help as many as he can. He says: “We cannot run away from this virus. Part of working for GOAL is to help people through crises like these.”
Dutchman’s previous work has seen him prevent the spread of other diseases including cholera which is a very common disease in Malawi. “Communities have fears about diseases and ensuring they have all the information they need alleviates this fear and makes them trust us and allows us to help and makes GOAL’s operations more effective.”
As of September 1st, Malawi has seen over 5,500 cases of COVID-19 with over 170 deaths.