Responding to epidemics with courage and hope

There are many unknowns and a lot of misinformation surrounding COVID-19. At CARE though, we know from decades of responding to epidemics in some of the poorest and most fragile contexts that the only way through is together.

Public hand washing station at village in Liberia. Staff and community healthcare workers encourage people to consistently wash hands whenever leaving and entering a building or house. Credit: David Lai/CARE
Women read brochures on water, sanitation and hygiene in Nepal

Between 2015 and 2019, CARE has run 57 projects that aimed to stop the spread of infectious disease epidemics—like Ebola, cholera, and Zika—in 20 countries around the world. These projects collectively worked with 9 million people directly and 16.7 million indirectly.

What we saw from these responses prove that things get better. We already have many of the tools it will take to help the world respond to and overcome COVID-19.

What did we accomplish?

  • People knew how to protect themselves. In Sierra Leone’s Emergency Ebola Response Project, people were more likely to know about the causes of Ebola and more likely to know how they could avoid contracting the disease. In Ecuador and Peru’s Zika Response, up to 98% of people were using data from community-based health systems to protect themselves, and 89% of women in Ecuador were applying best practices to stay safe.
  • More people wash their hands. In Yemen’s Emergency Assistance for Vulnerable and Conflict-Affected Communities, families were 2.6 times more likely to wash their hands. In Sierra Leone’s Emergency Ebola Response Project, people were 30% more likely to wash their hands to avoid contracting the disease.
  • Families can eat better. In Sierra Leone’s Rapid Social Safety Net and Economic Recovery Project, 91% of people were satisfied with CARE’s Ebola response, and 84% of people ate more meals each day.
  • Health systems got stronger. In Yemen’s Joint Response Project, nearly 30,000 people received health services from trained health workers. In Sierra Leone’s Epidemic Control and Reinforcement of Health Services (ECRHS) Program, the national supply chains for critical drugs got stronger, so health centres were 5 times more likely to have medications for women coming in for pre-natal visits. They are also more likely to have the supplies and equipment they need. In Ecuador and Peru’s Zika Response, 60% of local governments in Ecuador, and 95% of local governments in Peru budgeted extra money for Zika prevention, monitoring, and response.
Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) training in Nepal

How did we get there?

  • Build emergency alert systems. All of the projects mentioned above worked with national and local governments, and community leaders to share accurate information that would help people take action. This included T-shirts, posters, skits and radio shows, as well as phone numbers to local health centres so they could get immediate information.
  • Connect health centres to communities. Most projects worked with a network of local volunteers who functioned as intermediaries between centres and communities. They could share health tips with communities and alert the health centres when communities needed extra support and attention. A key learning from In Ecuador and Peru’s Zika Response was that projects should pay health volunteers for their time—both to ensure longer-term engagement and to give families some much-needed support in an emergency
  • Do your homework. All of the projects conducted rapid assessments so they could adjust project plans based on the immediate needs.
  • Be efficient and flexible. Sierra Leone’s Rapid Social Safety Net and Economic Recovery Project, originally used a mobile money transfer system that didn’t work for the communities we were serving. In the second phase, they saved time and money by going back to more traditional distributions in places without mobile coverage.
  • Focus on supply chains. In Sierra Leone’s Epidemic Control and Reinforcement of Health Services (ECRHS) Program, community volunteers conducted supply audits at health centres to track which centres were having trouble keeping enough medicine available to treat patients, and develop a plan to fix it.
  • Make data visible. Sierra Leone’s Epidemic Control and Reinforcement of Health Services (ECRHS) Program helped health centres track patient and supply data so they could track supply and demand patterns and order medicines. It also made it easier for health inspectors and communities to hold centres accountable.
  • Think about the whole portfolio. The most successful project teams used a combination of donors and projects so they could bring in money to fill in gaps from other programs and avoid duplicating effort.
  • Focus on gender. Many projects focused on gender, using tools like Rapid Gender Analysis, gender mainstreaming training for all staff, and CARE’s Gender Marker as a way to measure progress towards quality gender programming.

There are so many organizations and experts around the world with the experience and expertise to keep as many people safe as possible. It's up to all of us to come together, do our part, listen to and trust the experts and reassure one another.