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Photo: World Renew
Photo by World Renew

Some of the poorest people in communities around the world are playing key roles in helping to share information about how to prevent and treat the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.

In Bangladesh, for example, a local people’s institution (self-help group) known as the Jhinuk Unnayan Sangha, has come forward to increase awareness among people in villages and other locations about this disease that has in a few short months infected over 6 million and killed some 370,000 people around the world.

“They are able in different ways to get out the COVID-19 message and break down rumors,” said Nancy TenBroek, who works for World Renew in Bangladesh and oversees projects involving child and maternal health in several other countries. TenBroek recently talked about some of these efforts as a featured speaker on a webinar conference hosted by Christian Connections for International Health, a network of Christians inspired by faith and committed to evidence-based practice in global health.

“Because of the work World Renew and its partners have done over the years in Bangladesh and elsewhere, we have gained the trust of the poorest people in many communities, especially in dealing with issues of public health,” said TenBroek. “This means people are willing to listen to us.”

Right now, TenBroek is temporarily working out of her home in Grand Rapids, Mich., spending hours on the phone and in Zoom meetings to monitor the challenges facing the people with whom she works — with the help of a grant from the Baker Estate — in a range of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

With help from this grant, many health volunteers have been trained in these distant places – and now they are getting information on new messages regarding COVID-19 to share with their neighbors.

“Every situation in which we work is different, and we don’t have all of the answers,” said TenBroek. “As best we are able, we assist people, and our partners work with the resources that are there in their community.”

With some funding from the Baker grant, Sonjoy Hagidok and Fatema Akter serve in Bangladesh in a World Renew child and maternal health program that focuses on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

As COVID-19 hit Bangladesh in March, they quickly realized “that it is possible to survive from this epidemic mainly through health awareness. . . . [We have] raised awareness among the people about frequent hand washing with soap, the regular use of masks, and social distancing,” they wrote in a report for World Renew about their efforts.

Community health volunteers have been trained and are already in the communities in Bangladesh; they live there and are able to work with people with needs. In some cases, they work with people who have been able to purchase sewing machines through a local savings group. And now those with sewing machines have been able to make masks and distribute them to other needy people “and also share about the usefulness of masks.”

 The people’s institution, the grassroots program at work in the communities, has distributed masks and soap to pregnant women and mothers with young children who are very poor.

 “We are praying that every member will protect themselves and continue to work together during this COVID-19 disaster period,” they wrote.

 Raymond Mutava, a World Renew staff member in Uganda, told TenBroek that because they are under a strict lockdown, they are using, in collaboration with the country’s health ministry, the radio to send out messages.

 “We have weekly radio talk sessions to explain to communities what COVID-19 is and the recommended measures to prevent transmission and what to do if one contracts the disease,” wrote Mutava.

 Sadoc Aguilar Palma, a World Renew staff member in Guatemala, said a health specialist “is giving messages to each group leader by phone about preventative measures such as handwashing, social distancing, and how to make face masks, so that they can share that information to other beneficiaries during home visits.”

TenBroek shared that in one West African country, World Renew has supplied masks and soap for the "Shining Mamas," their health volunteers who are providing maternal and child health and nutrition messages -- and now information about COVID-19.

They have also stepped up their latrine installation work, thanks to the Baker health grant, said TenBroek.

David Tyokighir, who serves in Nigeria, said the Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH) project, which is supported by the grant, continues to positively impact individuals and communities in Nigeria in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For instance, he wrote in a report, one of the lessons in the grant project manual provides an opportunity for participants to learn how to build a “tippy tap” for handwashing.

“This is a mechanism that makes it possible to wash hands without touching the tap with your hands but by stepping on a stick tied with a rope to a gallon container with water in it. A bar of soap is usually tied to a rope and hung beside the container of water,” he wrote.

Bridget, from the Angwan Asibiti community in Kaduna State, noted with excitement that “God saw the end from the beginning when he ordered the steps of World Renew . . . to introduce this simple and helpful handwashing technology in their village ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Tyokighir added.

Bridget and her husband, Stephen Isuwa, have played a role in helping other participants in the maternal and child health program and have installed handwashing stations in their compounds where household members and guests can use them in line with COVID-19 prevention measures.

In Malawi, Thanzi Nchuma, a local World Renew project partner, has supported the district government to train local facility staff, field health workers, and parent volunteers in COVID-19 case management and prevention.

“In many of the countries where we work, good information is hard to access, since many of the people have no TV or internet, and through the work we are already doing in these places, we are able to make a difference,” said TenBroek.

“In many places, faith leaders are among the first responders and are already a key part, in one way or another, with the health system. We are able to offer clear messages and make a difference during this difficult time.”