At Action Against Hunger, we take the threat of coronavirus (“COVID-19”) very seriously and have put measures in place to protect the health and safety of our staff and people in the communities that we serve around the world.
Based on the guidance that the CDC, WHO, and local authorities are offering, as of March 12, all U.S.-based employees are working remotely through March 27 and staff will only be permitted to travel for essential purposes. During this time, our operations will continue as close to normal as possible.
To date, most of the more than 45 countries where Action Against Hunger operates have confirmed cases of infection. Some country programs, such as Iran and Afghanistan, are closer to epidemic zones and are developing dedicated operational plans.
Impact on Action Against Hunger’s Programs
Our teams in the field are taking all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the communities we serve while ensuring the continuity of our lifesaving programs. Many of these measures are designed to protect health workers in communities and facilities, who are among the most at risk for contracting infectious disease. These preparedness measures include restricting travel, reinforcing hygiene practices, defining isolation procedures in case of contamination, ensuring masks for staff who are ill or in contact with sick people, securing equipment to protect our healthcare facilities, and more.
In the countries in which we work, Action Against Hunger will offer our support to the health ministries through specific activities to support local systems. We will make every effort to help identify and refer infected individuals to health centers, as well as to strengthen implementation of hygiene measures to promote behavioral change, including through community support groups.
We also know that undernutrition is a risk factor for complications and death in people with coronavirus. And, as is the case with other diseases such as cholera, malaria, and Ebola, we fear that undernutrition may make people more vulnerable to coronavirus since we know that undernutrition weakens people’s immune systems.
In addition to the strain that this pandemic could put on health systems and facilities around the world, Action Against Hunger is concerned about the long-term impact this pandemic could have on poverty and hunger. As the virus continues to spread, it could impact food production and lead to food insecurity. In addition, at a macro level, when the global economy suffers, the effects on the world's poorest populations could be devastating, driving more people into hunger and poverty.
Clean Water and Healthy Hygiene As Important Now As Ever
The pandemic is a stark reminder of the challenges that poor families face around the world, especially in the growing number of areas where access to water is limited. In addition to treating millions of acutely malnourished children, our vital Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programs teach handwashing and other basic hygiene practices critical to prevent the spread of disease, including coronavirus, worldwide. Last year, our WASH programs reached 8.9 million people.
Here are just some of the ways we promote access to safe water and healthy hygiene:
We are improving access to clean water by building and repairing water sources. By hosting community education sessions and working with mother-to-mother groups, we teach handwashing, sanitary food practices, safe infant care practices, and more. In Haiti, for example, Action Against Hunger has helped to eliminate cholera in part by distributing hygiene kits to all households with suspected cases and educating high-risk communities about handwashing, clean water, and improved sanitation.
In addition to spreading messages about good hygiene habits, how to prevent disease, and how to keep families healthy, our research teams study different ways to encourage hand-washing and healthy habits. They test innovative approaches and explore questions like: in the midst of conflict or natural disaster and in communities where access to clean water is limited, what motivates people to wash their hands?
Currently, we are testing how to encourage behavior change in Ethiopia through this study investigating whether adding mirrors or nicer soap at handwashing stations encourages people to wash more frequently. Another study in Pakistan showed that children under five in homes that received plain soap and handwashing education had a 50% lower incidence of pneumonia.
Although coronavirus is a concern in Africa and everywhere we work, Action Against Hunger remains steadfast and focused on helping the 820 million people who go hungry each day. By comparison, as of March 13, there were more than 137,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, including 146 in Africa.
With so much attention on coronavirus, it’s critical for all of us to remember the 5.3 million children under five who die each year worldwide, nearly half from undernutrition. We must address this pandemic, but that cannot mean that millions of children are left at risk of death from other preventable causes.
From all of us at Action Against Hunger: Thank you for sharing our commitment to ensure no child dies from hunger – and to help every child grow up strong.