COVID-19 in the Rhino Refugee Settlement. “We were terrified, but we can come out of this stronger than before.”

by Amref Health Africa

COVID-19 preparedness and response project in Uganda funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).

The unprecedented health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous strain on countries around the world, exposing long-standing gaps in public health and exacerbating chronic inequities. In fact, the fight against COVID-19, for marginalized and vulnerable groups, is more strenuous, as it has been, for example, in many areas of Uganda. As of February 24th, the country has reported 40,261 cases of COVID-19 and 334 deaths and has recently ordered 18 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford AstraZeneca. About 40% of the doses are expected to be delivered to the country by the end of March.

In the Rhino Settlement Camp in northern Uganda, COVID-19 represented a major threat. Currently, Uganda hosts approximately 1.4 million refugees, primarily migrants from adjacent countries. In the Camp, where Amref – Italy has operated since 2017, 120,000 refugees share land and resources with the members of the Ugandan host community. Over 60% of the population is constituted by children, and over 52% by women.

With the emergence of COVID-19, the instability within the Camp risked exacerbating beyond any reasonable limit. For this reason, with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), Amref promptly launched a response project to the COVID-19 emergency, entitled “Preparedness and Response to COVID-19 in Rhino South Sudanese Settlement, Arua District, West Nile, Northern Uganda”. The priorities were set in a timely and precise manner, and all available resources have been employed to achieve the set objectives between July and December 2020. Amongst these, “the strengthening of the health structures and facilities within the Camp, the improvement of the skills of health personnel and the training of community health workers, who could raise awareness among refugees”, explains Emmanuel Ebitu, Project Coordinator at Amref Health Africa in Uganda.

“In Rhino Camp, as in the rest of the world, everyone does all they can. Thanks to the recent funds received, everyone’s opportunities to contribute have been intensified. And it does not matter who you are or what your contribution can be. What matters is that your forces are channeled in an appropriate and common direction”. These are the words of Christine Lanyero, Project Manager at Amref Health Africa, in Rhino Camp.

In fact, thanks to the funds received and to the collaboration of each member of the settlement, 94 members of the Rhino community have been trained to be part of the Village Health Team and instructed on the implementation of IPC (Infection, Prevention and Control) awareness campaigns, as well as 50 health workers, including laboratory staff. Medical supplies – including assorted personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, rubber boots, reusable and sanitizing aprons – were provided to meet the sanitation needs of all healthcare professionals.

118 community leaders were also trained on virus prevention and community-based disease surveillance. “When COVID arrived,” explains Onen Alfred, Principal of the Ofua 3 School, at Rhino, “we were terrified. The lockdown has created a lot of problems for us. But Amref stood with us, gave us guidelines to follow and offered us fundamental teachings, thanks to which we can come out of this crisis stronger than before. Now, for example, the kids are back at school, and thanks to the interventions carried out in recent months we can offer them everything they need for proper hand washing. An opportunity that will remain just as important, even after the pandemic is over”.

Reverend Canon Wilson Alaroci Otuma, Pastor of the local church, adds that he is “grateful to Amref for giving [them] a voice and with it, the possibility of protecting [their] community in the churches in which [they] operate”.

Finally, extensive home awareness campaigns were conducted. Among the host communities, the Village Health Teams reached 764 families – a number that corresponds to about 3,820 people, considering the average size of a Ugandan household – and sensitized 6,344 people. Among the refugee communities, 9,790 families – approximately 48,950 people – and 64,336 people were reached and sensitized.

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