Called to the toughest places: Four change-makers responding to COVID-19

Jun 24, 2020
By Amanda Cupido

Like many people, I’ve spent about four months sheltering in place. COVID-19 has forced us to face health scares, economic challenges and a new way of life. But it’s also been stretching us in ways that encourage growth. It has been nice to see people sharing what keeps them motivated and gratefulness for local frontline health workers. 

Within World Vision, we have our own “frontline” workers. These are people (both in the health industry and other sectors) who put themselves at risk, every day, to help vulnerable children and their families. We call them “hidden heroes”. 

I had the chance to connect with some of them, to see how they’re responding to COVID-19 in some of the world’s toughest places.

Anne-Marie Connor

Anne-Marie Connor is the national director for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Originally from Sarnia, Ont., she lives in Kinshasa, which is the country’s capital. It also happens to be the country’s epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.

A group of people stand together in conversation.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, Anne-Marie Connor, national director for World Vision Democratic Republic of Congo, visited a nutrition centre and met families like this one with children recovering from malnutrition. Photo: Patrick Abega

“There’s a huge amount of anxiety in Kinshasa,” she says. “We’re in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment, but we’re waiting for an explosion of cases in the coming weeks. There’s a lot of rumours going around what COVID-19 is, who has brought it here and why. The buzz around the city is how anxious people are about the unknown.”

She explains that the health system there is already extremely fragile. “While there are fantastic and dedicated nurses and doctors… they simply don’t have the supplies and the equipment, whether it’s protective or advanced equipment.”

For example, the DRC has a population of 80 million people and only 65 ventilators. 

The other piece is the economic impact -- particularly on families and children. Connor says about 80 per cent rely on day labour, which means they are paid daily and live “pay cheque to pay cheque.”

“They can’t self-isolate. If they do that, they won’t eat, and their children won’t eat. So how do we encourage people to stay home? We have to address secondary impacts,” she says. “We have to provide money. We have to provide food. And if we can’t do that, we have to look at other innovative solutions to address this. It’s a huge challenge that both the government and organizations are going to be facing in the coming months.” 

Although the world has never seen a global pandemic quite like this, we have seen other deadly diseases. The DRC is still facing the Ebola outbreak, but is able to lean on best practices that were established from responding to that crisis. One of those tactics is to use local faith leaders to help debunk myths and spread awareness.

“For a number of reasons, there’s not much trust with those that are considered ‘outsiders’. But we work with local faith leaders who do trust us and then they become the face and the hands and the feet of the message around preventing COVID-19,” Connor says. 

Lynn Bou Saba

In Lebanon, World Vision is working to reach the 250,000 displaced people, most of which are Syrian refugees. Lynn Bou Saba is the World Vision water, sanitation and hygiene manager there. They started adapting their programming in February.

a woman smiles at the camera. She wears a beige vest bearing the World Vision logo on it
Lynn Bou Saba is working with her team to bring clean water and santitation to children and families living as refugees in Lebanon. Photo: George Mghames

“To be honest, we did not think that it would roll out like this and we would have confirmed cases in Lebanon. But we worked more on being proactive rather than reactive, thinking, ‘in case this happens, we want to be prepared’ and thank God we did that,” she says.

The Lebanon team is also working with community leaders to support people living in the “homes” within the settlements. For the record, a home is a tent made of wood and plastic sheets.

“It’s important to mention that the COVID outbreak in Lebanon comes as a crisis within a crisis,” says Bou Saba. 

Typically, distributions in settlements would have people coming together in a common meeting spot to pick up what they need most. Now, programming has shifted to include handing out more soap and to honour social distancing.

“Beneficiaries were asked to stay in their tents. Then staff, wearing masks and gloves, would leave soap at the door of the household… [and] go back a couple of steps,” she explained. 

When they opened the door, the staff would quickly explain what they were receiving. “There was also a flyer about COVID-19, preventive measures and the number to call if there are expected cases,” she says. 

Isabel Gomes

World Vision International’s emergency response director, Isabel Gomes, says refugees will be the hardest hit by COVID-19.

“A lot of the measures that we are taking to prevent or to limit the spread of the virus – like social distancing or self-quarantine –are not going to apply where the most vulnerable children are,” she says. “How can we tell people to be far away from each other if they don’t have the chance to, because it’s overcrowded? That’s going to be a huge challenge. It’s what I fear the most. If you ask what keeps me awake? What makes my heart break? It’s to think of the children living in refugee camps.” 

A woman hugs a child. She is surrounded by children and they are sitting at tables.Before the pandemic began, Isabel Gomes visited a child friendly space in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: World Vision

But she explains that she’s thankful for World Vision’s disaster management tools, standards and processes that were already in place. “Right now, none of the things we have can serve as a guide to this emergency. But what we’ve been able to do very fast is look at what we have and look very quickly at how we can adapt it for these circumstances.” 

Listen to more from Isabel Gomes in this podcast:



Another group that has risen to the challenge of tackling COVID-19 is World Vision’s Young Leaders. These are children around the world who are passionate about advocating for their peers. They’ve put together a collaborative report, Children’s voices in the times of COVID-19. Fifteen-year-old Nomundari from Mongolia is one of the contributors, who shared how she’s been feeling.

A young Mongolian girl looks straight into the camera lens.
Nomundari, 15, from Mongolia, is a youth leader, advocating for cleaner air and child protection at home and around the world. Photo: Dashdorj Otgonkhuu

“I’m really scared because my loved ones could be infected. I could be infected, and you can’t recover fast from it.” 

Nomundari says there are a few messages that she and her peers are eager to share during this time. “We should cherish and be more thankful for health professionals. We don’t [normally] appreciate how much they do for us. And appreciate what we have in our lives right now. It can be gone tomorrow. Anything can be gone tomorrow,” she says.

Being in lockdown in Mongolia has prevented her from taking part in some of her typical child advocacy activities, but she continues to use social media to do outreach about the pandemic.

“I can’t donate money since I don’t earn money. But I can at least give hope to others and I can at least raise awareness of COVID-19. It’s all I can do, and I want to do it more passionately.”

Back at home, the president and CEO of World Vision Canada, Michael Messenger, says that World Vision’s hidden heroes keep him motivated. “We’re called to the toughest places, during difficult times, to reach those who are most vulnerable. World Vision was born out of crises. It’s in our DNA and that hasn’t changed.” 

Learn how ordinary women and men can have an extraordinary impact. Let’s celebrate our hidden heroes together! Share what makes them a hero on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn and tag us @worldvisioncan and #HiddenHero

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