In their own words: Delivering aid in the DRC during COVID-19

In their own words: Delivering aid in the DRC during COVID-19

Jul 30, 2020

René Namunesha, a father of five, is a local aid worker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When the COVID-19 pandemic reached his country, Namunesha was working with People in Need (PIN) on a project funded by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), in the Lemera Zone in eastern Congo. Together with others from PIN and Doctors of the World Belgium, he has been working hard to increase the capacity of health centres to screen patients for COVID-19, 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 ECHO-funded project.

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

How did you become a humanitarian worker? Why did you choose this career?

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 seven international humanitarian organisations. I chose this job to help people who are vulnerable and in distress, and I feel good about this job.

Why did you join PIN? How long have you been with the organisation?

I left Cooperazione Internazionale in 2013 to join PIN in the implementation of a DRC Humanitarian Fund-sponsored health project in the highlands of Kalehe, specifically in the health zones of Minova and Bunyakiri. I was motivated by the organisation’s reputation for intervening in hard-to-reach environments and its good responses to emergencies, and I wanted to gain new experiences. I then went to work with the International Rescue Committee, but returned to PIN five years later to join the project in Lemera/Bijombo in the highlands of Uvira. In total, I have spent almost two years working with PIN.

"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 COVID-19 cases."

What is your current position and how long have you held it?

I have been working as a community mobiliser for the last 11 months.

Can you describe your average day in the field?

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

How has your job changed because of COVID-19?

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 two weeks. During these activities, we maintain social distancing and follow COVID-19 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? For example, access difficulties, stigma, lack of confidence, or other issues?

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 COVID-19 cases.

(Note: In many parts of the DRC where we work, beneficiaries often do not consider COVID-19 to be a threat. As such, they are often sceptical of aid workers who raise awareness of COVID-19 in places with no confirmed cases.)

"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."

Are your daily routines different? 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 learned 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 COVID-19. I have learned 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.

Have the people you are supporting changed their perspective on aid workers?

Yes, as I said, the community does not feel as at ease as before with colleagues coming from areas with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Are you personally afraid of COVID-19 or of the economic consequences associated with it?

Yes, I am. I fear getting COVID-19 and suffering in isolation without receiving adequate care, a concern which is particularly relevant in the DRC.

How is your family coping with this new situation?

I was based in the field for three months without seeing my family, my wife, and my children. They stayed at home; I asked them to limit home visits and not allow the children to be in contact with strangers or to play with other children. The children no longer go to school and we try to keep them occupied with lessons at home and with games. There is not much entertainment, and they can no longer go to church or 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.

"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."

Is it now more difficult to combine 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 connections. 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 banks. There is also a general lack of information.

Has the COVID-19 emergency response changed you in any way? How?

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 models and try to copy us, but they often lack the protective equipment that is needed.

Has COVID-19 affected your social life as well?

I no longer shake hands with people, and I disinfect myself all the time. My family, friends, and colleagues and I communicate by WhatsApp, Messenger, and Skype. I get messages about COVID-19, but most of the time, they are just rumours or jokes with contradictory, inconsistent, and often disappointing information. I no longer go out, and I do not travel to neighbouring countries for visits or entertainment because the borders with Burundi and Rwanda are now closed.

Author: Zawadi Izabayo, People in Need DRC Communication Officer