Delivering aid in the DRC in times of coronavirus

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René Namushena. © People in Need, 2020 (photographer: Zawadi Izabayo)

René Namunesha, a father of 5, is a local aid worker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

When the coronavirus pandemic reached his country, Namunesha was working with People in Need (PIN) on a project funded by the European Union in the Lemera Zone (Eastern Congo).

Together with others from PIN and Doctors of the World Belgium, he has been working hard to increase the capacity of the health centres to screen patients for coronavirus, process suspected cases, refer infected patients to the appropriate health facilities and raise awareness about the disease.

The health centres Namunesha supports also focus on treating people with severe acute malnutrition. Since 2019, nearly 35,000 patients have received consultations as part of the EU-funded project.

We recently spoke to Namunesha about his life as a humanitarian worker in the DRC.

How did you become a humanitarian worker?

I became a humanitarian worker during the genocide in Rwanda. I first worked as a volunteer in Rwandan refugee camps and then I became an aid worker; I have been an aid worker ever since. Over the years, I have worked with 7 international humanitarian organisations. I chose this job to help people who are vulnerable and in distress, and I feel good about this job.

Can you describe your average day in the field?

I am based in the field full time, and I spend every day monitoring and supervising community activities and health facilities.

How has your job changed because of coronavirus?

It has changed significantly. I spend less time at the office and work mostly from home. The frequency of my contact with beneficiaries has decreased as well, due to limits on free movement. Instead of meeting with community members once a week for regular activities — like awareness raising and screenings — now we only meet once every 2 weeks. During these activities, we maintain social distancing and follow coronavirus prevention measures. I have also noticed that the communities have become more careful in their interactions with us.

Do you see any new challenges due to the disease?

In addition to limits on our movements and delays in our activities caused by difficulties in accessing the project sites, I can already see an economic crisis coming. I also see the stigmatisation of people affected by the disease and of our colleagues or partners coming from areas with confirmed coronavirus cases.

(Note: In many parts of the DRC where we work, beneficiaries often do not consider coronavirus to be a threat. As such, they are often sceptical of aid workers who raise awareness of coronavirus in places with no confirmed cases.)

Is your daily routine different now? How do you protect yourself and the people you support?

Yes, our routines have changed. We protect ourselves and the people we support by wearing masks and cleaning our hands with soap or hydroalcoholic gels. As I said, we also keep our distance.

What are the biggest challenges or obstacles you have had to overcome during the pandemic? Have you learnt any new lessons?

The biggest obstacles are related to our limited access to the communities. We also face resistance on the part of communities when it comes to accepting messages related to the coronavirus. I have learnt that megaphones, door to door visits, and awareness-raising through traditional channels — such as trusted community representatives or village leaders — are helpful for reaching out to the community and gaining acceptance for the messages we are delivering.

How have the lives of beneficiaries changed due to the coronavirus?

There has been an increase in unemployment due to the economic situation, and in the villages, idle boys have become “road cutters” — meaning, they are stopping cars to rob passengers in collusion with armed groups. We have also noticed an increase in cases of domestic violence. Early marriages due to a shortage of jobs are common and there is a higher rate of abortions. The risk of separation between men and women has increased in low-income families, which live largely [on earnings] from day labour. There has also been an increase in nutritional deficiency and many children have developed severe acute malnutrition. These numbers continue to rise every day.

How is your family coping with this new situation?

I have been based in the field for 3 months without seeing my family, my wife, and my children. They stay at home. I asked them to limit home visits and not allow the children to be in contact with strangers nor to play with other children. The children no longer go to school and we try to keep them busy with lessons at home and with games. There is not much entertainment, and they can no longer go to church nor see other family members. On the other hand, our monthly expenditures have increased because of scarcity and the increase in prices at the market. It is now difficult for us to feed our children properly.

Is it now more difficult to balance your work as an aid worker with your family life?

Because we live in Bukavu, we work from our offices on some days and from home on others. Working from home brings challenges such as power cuts or weak internet connection. It is also difficult for us to reach the areas of intervention, due to a lack of flights and poor road access. Sometimes, it is difficult for us to access our salaries from the bank. There is also a general lack of information.

Has the coronavirus emergency response changed you in any way?

Yes, it has changed my professional life. I am a community mobiliser and I have to be in contact with the community at all times. I disinfect myself after each contact. Imagine how many times a day I have to disinfect myself when my work entails spreading awareness, conducting home visits, training support groups, and detecting malnutrition. It is painful for me because I am in contact with new people every 10 minutes, many of whom lack protective equipment. I have to climb mountains and make long journeys into the bush in search of telephone networks to get information from my family and acquaintances, and to let them know that I am okay. My colleagues and I wear masks and we disinfect ourselves at all times; the villagers consider us a model for prevention measures/prevention steps to take and try to copy us, but they often lack the protective equipment that is needed.

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René Namushena working at People in Need’s office in Bukavu. © People in Need, 2020 (photographer: Zawadi Izabayo)

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