Real leaders are not afraid of a challenge. But 2020 presented obstacles like never before. In response, tens of thousands of people worldwide stepped up to save lives while putting their own at risk.
To me, humanitarian workers stand out as particularly inspiring. In addition to overcoming tremendous uncertainty and fear of Covid-19, they faced down floods, droughts, historic swarms of locusts, and other crises to treat potentially life-threatening malnutrition among the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Women also have been on the front lines of the global response, often directing teams, working remarkably long hours in unimaginably difficult situations, sacrificing the ability to spend time with their own families to help others. I see them as leadership heroes and want to spotlight three leaders working in places that rank among the worst in the world for poverty and hunger, saving hundreds of young lives in the process. This is what real leadership looks like, and I hope more people will step up to lead in the year ahead.
Dr. Ayesha Aziz runs a nutrition program in Sindh, Pakistan, where nearly half of children under five suffer from severe acute malnutrition – the deadliest form of hunger. She oversees approximately 2,800 community health care workers who go door-to-door, screening children ages six months to five years. Those who need treatment are referred to a treatment center where they can receive therapeutic foods; or a local hospital if they have pneumonia or other complications.
Sindh was the first region of Pakistan hit by COVID-19. A lockdown was instituted, and fear swept through communities and among health care workers. Many people stopped going to health centers to get the nutrition treatment they needed. “Just getting people out and reaching the sites is one of the major challenges,” said Dr. Aziz.
Health care workers were concerned, as they lacked the personal protective equipment (PPE) essential to stay safe. Supply chains were interrupted, causing some nutrition and other medical treatments to be unavailable for days at a time.
Nevertheless, the team worked tirelessly with the local, district, and national governments to ensure that the nutrition centers were able to remain open and safely operating. After several weeks, PPE was procured so that the health care workers could safely continue their work, but the number of children traveling for nutrition treatment fell by approximately 75%.
Dr. Aziz and her team overcame all of the obstacles to screening almost 500,000 children and are working to screen nearly one million more in the next several months. About 80,000 have been treated for malnutrition. Despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19, the team still goes door-to-door to monitor the children’s progress and help their families avoid a relapse into malnutrition.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the De Martini Hospital in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu was the country’s only coronavirus hospital, with just 71 beds to serve a city of more than two million. Fardosa Hussein, Action Against Hunger’s Somalia Communications Manager, visited the hospital to learn more about the facility and found something she didn’t expect: a close-knit community of women on the frontlines. These women were doctors, nurses, and other health care staff who left their families at home to live at the hospital – women who have been fighting to save every patient and support each other.
“The reason I went to school to get an education is that, if such pandemics take place, I can be on the frontline to support my people,” said Xilwo Daud Ibrahim, a doctor who was not able to see her infant daughter or elderly parents for months. “I made a personal decision not to go home to reduce the risk of affecting my family.”
Dr. Ibrahim said that many people in Somalia have been too scared to seek medical care due to the stigma of COVID-19; for those who did, there were not enough ventilators or other supplies. She and her colleagues watched many suffer and eventually die.
Those suffering from malnutrition are much more vulnerable to the negative impacts of COVID-19, as their immune systems are already compromised. Even before the pandemic, one in three people in Somalia didn’t have enough food due to poverty, flooding, and swarms of locusts.
Despite these obstacles, doctors like Ibrahim showed up each day to save lives. “I will serve my people as long as I live,” she said.
When the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar on the southeast coast of Bangladesh, the government-imposed lockdowns. Suddenly, streets and buildings were emptied, markets and restaurants closed, and offices – once hives of activity – turned silent as staff members started working from home.
But not every worker could stay indoors and protect themselves and their loved ones. During these difficult times, Abeda Sultana Liza, Action Against Hunger’s Supervisor for the Food For Peace Program, has been committed to fighting the virus and delivering essential services to those who depend on her. She considers herself a soldier in an army of dedicated humanitarian workers.
Every day she wakes up early, shares her morning tea with her family, and sanitizes her motorcycle. Then she sets out with five other community facilitators, helping low-income families find ways to supplement their income to afford things like food, medicine, and school supplies. “We do not know who is sick and who is not, but we always make sure to keep a safe distance, sanitize our hands, clean equipment and have a big smile,” she said.
Traveling between areas on her motorcycle, Liza’s days have gotten much longer due to COVID-19. She has put her professional life over her personal life, leaving her family early in the morning and coming home late, working hard to keep interactions with them to a bare minimum in case she has been exposed to the virus.
“The first thing I will do after this ends is to give a big hug to my family, my team, and all the people I care about,” she said. “My fight with COVID-19 is not the only battle: I also fight hunger, poverty, inequality, discrimination, and global warming. I want everyone to have a better life. And I will keep on fighting.”