Africa’s unsung army of women wage war on Covid-19

Community health volunteer Everlyne Akinyi Omondi talks to residents about the dangers of Covid-19 in Kawangware informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya on May 27, 2020.
Community health volunteer Everlyne Akinyi Omondi talks to residents about the dangers of Covid-19 in Kawangware informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya on May 27, 2020.
Image: THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

Armed with a face mask, notebook and pen, Everlyne Akinyi Omondi sets out each morning from her one-room home in Nairobi’s informal settlement of Kawangware to do a job few others would contemplate in a pandemic.

As cases of the new coronavirus climb and Kenyans are told to stay home and avoid human contact, 38-year-old Omondi moves from house to house through Kawangware’s maze of narrow lanes.

Standing at the doorways of the cramped, corrugated houses, she talks about Covid-19 and shows residents how to wash hands or don a mask, patiently answering their questions.

“I know there are risks of contracting the virus, but I don’t feel so scared. I have made a pledge to keep my community safe,” Omondi said, turning to reprimand a group of children crowded about her for not maintaining social distancing rules.

“You see how small and close together the places where we live are. We have to make sure people understand how they can stop corona from spreading. Here, if one person gets it, everyone can.”

The mother of three is not a doctor, nurse or medic of any sort, just one of tens of thousands of ordinary African women who, without fanfare, battle the virus in their communities.

Poorly paid or not at all, these unsung armies of mostly female community health workers have for years doled out advice and health services to families living in remote villages and urban slums who lack formal support.

Recruited and trained by government and charities — they are found from Kenya to Tanzania, Ethiopia to Malawi, Liberia to SA — the women go door-to-door, dispensing advice on everything from family planning to immunisations.

Now, as transmission of the new coronavirus spreads, women like Omondi are essential foot soldiers in the war on Covid-19.

Charities such as Catholic Relief Services, which is supporting coronavirus training for about 5,000 community health volunteers in Kenya, say this workforce is key.

“Community health volunteers are not given the recognition they deserve, but they are important front-line workers.

"They have a wide range of knowledge and experience from dealing with cholera outbreaks to malaria prevention,” Moses Orinda, CRS’s senior project officer in Kenya, said.

“For Covid-19, they have the ability to contact-trace, provide support to home-based patients and conduct essential prevention and control activities,” Orinda said.

The virus has infected close to 10m people and killed almost 500,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Initially the virus multiplied slowly in Africa, but all 54 nations on the continent are now infected, with more than 330,000 cases and over 8,800 deaths combined, the AU’s Centre for Disease Control said.

Up to 190,000 Africans could die if containment measures such as contact tracing, isolation, personal hygiene and distancing are not improved. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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