Fighting COVID-19 in Ouelessebougou

THE PROBLEM

On April 5, 2020, the World Health Organization reported 1,133,758 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and that 62,784 individuals have now died in the world. The developed countries with the highest death rates include the USA with 9,655 deaths; China with 3,338 deaths; Italy with 15,362 deaths; Germany with 1,342 deaths; France with 7,546 deaths; United Kingdom with 4,313 deaths, and Spain 11,744 deaths.

Although these countries have been hit hard by COVID-19, they are better positioned to face the crisis than developing countries like Mali. They have stronger health and economical systems, physicians, nurses, health care facilities, and medical supplies. The outbreak of coronavirus could have catastrophic results in Mali, especially in poverty-stricken areas like Ouelessebougou.

The region of Ouelessebougou already faces extreme health challenges. Children, elders, and expecting mothers die because of malaria, malnutrition, and a lack of medical supplies in hospitals. The outbreak of coronavirus in a poor community like Ouelessebougou will ravage the population and cause more extreme poverty.

In two months, the rainy season will start Mali which exacerbates these issues. Malnutrition increases and malaria is rampant. In the Ouelessebougou Hospital, two to four children die per day from July to August. Three patients share the same single beds in the hospital room in July. Immuno-compromised individuals like the elderly, expectant mothers and those with pre-existing health conditions are already at extreme risk. An outbreak of COVID-19 during the rainy season will be even more deadly.

Imagine the Ouelessebougou hospital which is the largest hospital in the region. It serves 44 villages including 16 community health centers. Unfortunately, there are no ventilators and there is only one oxygen and suction machine. There are no respiratory therapists and very little in terms of personal protection equipment in the hospital.

Imagine how this hospital has very few beds and patients are in tight quarters, often many recovering in the same small room. Physical distancing is not even an option. Imagine how the Ouelessebougou hospital health workers will get infected by the virus due to a lack of medical equipment and infection prevention training. Imagine how many deaths will be in a community that already struggles significantly.

Mali has confirmed its first cases of coronavirus. Two Malians who returned from France on 12 and 16 March 2020. Since then, the numbers increase every week and today Mali has 47 confirmed cases and 5 deaths. Most of the patients live in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. However, many villagers from Ouelessebougou travel to and from Bamako for work, to market or to visit families. Village families in Ouelessebougou are at risk.

THE SOLUTION

Although we are keenly aware of the risks and potential outcomes the spread of COVID-19 could have on our beloved Ouelessebougou, we remain hopeful and vigilant in our efforts to safeguard village families. We at the Ouelessebougou Alliance are uniquely positioned to focus on coronavirus prevention thanks to our relationships with our 25 partner villages and the Mali Ministry of Health. Our Mali staff is already working with village chiefs, health workers and schools to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the Ouelessebougou region.

Here is how we are making a difference:

Village Health Workers & Training: What makes the Alliance unique from many NGO’s in the region is that we not only have a staff located in the states, but also a local staff of Malians working in Ouelessebougou. Because of safety issues in the country, many non-profit organizations have stopped operating local offices or do not have a working partnership with other countries. This partnership is key to our success because our local staff is able to be on the front lines and work closely with village leaders.

Because of our decades-long efforts to train village health workers and councils, we have built solid relationships. Local leaders look to us for advice, training, and resources to meet the medical and health needs of their villages. During times of crisis, like the Ebola pandemic or devastating droughts, our Mali staff has served as trusted health experts and provided training and relief. Our community-based public health program makes us uniquely positioned to provide support in times of crisis. Our Mali staff is currently visiting villages and working closely with our health workers to help spread the word about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Nutrition: People should not forget about the nutrition aspects of this pandemic challenges. The immune system plays an important role to prevent and recover from this pandemic coronavirus. As health experts say that the principal tasks of the body system are to kill bacteria, viruses, and parasites that have entered the body and it removes them from the body. The immune system keeps people healthy, prevents infection, and defends people against germs and microorganisms daily. People need to eat foods that nourish and strengthen their immune system in order to fight against the coronavirus pandemic. The world should watch both coronavirus prevention and defeating malnutrition in developing countries, particularly in remote areas like Ouelessebougou. There is a strong relationship between the virus of coronavirus and nutrition.

The Alliance is working with our partner villages to provide healthy solutions for village families. We own a Women’s Garden in Ouelessebougou and have partnered on two school gardens in the villages of Famana and Bassa, respectively. We provide nutrition and gardening training to the mothers and children in Ouelessebougou, in our villages and in our partner schools. Our Mali staff is meeting with village leaders and the Women’s Association now to remind them of the importance of growing and eating healthy crops to help them strengthen their immune systems during this pandemic.

Vaccinations & Malaria Prevention: With the global spread of COVID-19, it is as important as ever for villagers to stay in good health. A weakened immune system and pre-existing health conditions make contracting the virus even more life-threatening. Our vaccinations and malaria prevention programs are critical in maintaining the health of village families. During this pandemic, one of the Alliance’s priorities is to continue distribution of vaccines and mosquito nets. Our Mali staff is partnering with the local Ouelessebougou hospital and the village Health Workers to address these immediate needs.

Face Masks: The Alliance has the first-ever Days for Girls enterprise in Mali. At the Ouelessebougou compound, we have three Days for Girls Ambassadors who are sewing sustainable feminine hygiene kits. These tailors are now learning how to make cloth face masks to give to people in Ouelessebougou who need them. Although cloth masks are not the preferred means to prevent the spread of illness, it is a suitable alternative for villagers who do not have another option.

Hospital Supplies & Partnership: Thanks to the generosity of our Utah medical partners and their ongoing expeditions to Ouelessebougou, the Alliance has been able to store extra medical supplies over the years. These include surgical tools, masks, and even medicine. We have been able to donate supplies to the Ouelessebougou hospital and are working closely with the director to see how we can support their work and hospital operations if the virus spreads to Ouelessebougou.

Education & Awareness: It is more important than ever that the Ouelessebougou community be prepared before coronavirus spreads in their area. One of the problems is that people still do not understand what a pandemic means. Most do not believe that the virus exists and have misconceptions about how it can infect only white people or people of certain faiths.

Education is vital. The Alliance is running radio spots on the Radio Ciwara and Faso Kanu in Ouelessebougou. They broadcast this program twice a day — in the mornings and afternoons. More than 44 villages listen to these radio shows daily from their homes and at workplaces. The messages focus on cultural aspects of COVID-19 prevention including the measures that the government of Mali has put in place. This includes:

  • providing general information on COVID-19 and how it is transmitted, who is vulnerable, how to prevent and treat the illness
  • dispelling misconceptions and rumors about the pandemic
  • sharing important tips on personal cleanliness and hygiene such as not sharing the same bottle or jars in extended families, avoid sitting on common bathroom stools, and ceasing to share the same glass of tea in social gatherings
  • educating on proper handwashing techniques including washing hands with soap after touching cell-phones, money and commonly shared objects, washing before and after meals and after using the bathroom
  • maintaining a clean living space to prevent the spread of disease
  • praying at homes instead of going to the mosques and churches
  • discouraging the numbers of weddings, funerals, and baby naming ceremonies or limit the number of attendees at these events

In addition to that, we are encouraging the Ouelessebougou diasporas in France, Italy, Spain, China, and the USA to call the radio stations and share their experiences of the coronavirus in their countries. Djiba, our Program Coordinator who works in the Utah office, was the first diaspora to talk on the radio about the seriousness of the virus. Thanks to these efforts, we are already seeing the Ouelessebougou community take the virus more seriously. We have reports of people wearing face masks and gloves, and using gel and washing their hands with soap regularly.

Respecting social distance is one of the biggest challenges in Ouelessebougou. The Malian community is very social and shares everything. Extended families live in small homes in a shared compound and immediate families often share sleeping space with 4 of 5 people. Most Malians eat together from shared bowls. It is an important part of Mali culture and a way of building unity in their families and communities. Physical and social distancing will be very difficult, especially if families get infected by the virus. We are working on ways to provide education and overcome these challenges in the coming weeks.

TOGETHER WE CAN PREVENT THE SPREAD OF COVID-19

Our hearts go out to all those around the world affected by COVID-19. We deeply care about the safety of our local and global communities. The Alliance is on the front lines to protect the villagers of Ouelessebougou. Our mission is as important as ever as we work to protect the lives of nearly 25,000 people in Mali, West Africa. We are a small, but mighty team and thanks to the generosity of our supporters, together we will make a difference.

Please consider making a donation to our upcoming Virtual Auction so we can continue to our efforts and save lives today.

Written by Djiba Soumaoro & Judy Hut