Hitting 'Send' on digital emergency aid during COVID-19

Apr 06, 2020
Photo caption: Maria Minerva lives in Villa del Rosario, Colombia with two of her children, Jorge Luis, 4, and Jesus Elias, 2 months. She has relied on food vouchers and cash-transfers from World Vision to survive since fleeing hunger in Venezuela. Photo: Chris Huber

Elizabeth Araniva has years of experience as a front-line development worker in Latin America. But right now, the only way she can help families in Venezuela stay safe from COVID-19 is from her home in Mississauga, Ontario. 

“Even before the new coronavirus, millions of Venezuelans were already affected by food and medicine shortages and lack of jobs,” she explains. “The current political and economic crises have driven inflation way up.

“Now, with coronavirus on the rise in Venezuela, the situation is heartbreaking.” Families face threats like hunger, eviction, illness and even death. 

Although Elizabeth is grounded in Canada, her work on the COVID-19 response in Venezuela is taking off with an approach that’s worked in the country for years.

And she’s praying that it saves children’s lives.

Filling her prayers with familiar faces 

These days, Elizabeth’s prayers are filled with the faces of the Venezuelan children she’s met in her work on the ground over the years. 

Some are still living in the country. Others are among the nearly 5 million Venezuelans who’ve been forced to flee across borders, in search of safety, family or work. And as the new danger of COVID-19 sweeps the globe, those so close to her heart are right in the path of danger.

A World Vision staff member with a Venezuelan family. 
Elizabeth (gray T-shirt) visiting a Venezuelan refugee family in Colombia she’s been serving for years. Photo: courtesy of Elizabeth Araniva 

Their realities always fill Elizabeth’s thoughts and prayers – but especially right now.

“My husband calls children in this part of the world ‘my babies’,” she says. “Now that my own children have grown up, these are the girls and boys I care for. I very much want to be there right now, helping protect them from the coronavirus.” 

But the Venezuelan government isn’t currently granting visas to Canadians, making it harder to visit people overseas. That includes many Canadian aid workers – who are also doing their best to follow orders and stay at home.

Dangerous choices for families 

Elizabeth is not the only aid worker grounded here in Canada. When it comes to emergency relief, the coronavirus has created complex situations for teams around the world. 

And because citizens of countries like Venezuela are being told to stay home – just like families here in Canada – parents can’t leave their homes to access things like food aid. Or head out the door to work. 

For the children so close to Elizabeth’s heart, threats like hunger and eviction loom large. 

“In Venezuela, millions of parents make their livings as day-labourers or selling items at the market,” she explains. “Like many Canadians, they can’t just stop working and stay home without some kind of support.”

Two Venezuelan boys working at a cemetery.Luigi (left) and Luis smile, but for every day they help their father at his two-dollar-a-month cemetery job, their danger of exposure to COVID-19 increases. Without cash transfers, families like these could be penniless if they stay home. Photo: Mishelle Mitchell-Bernard 

Losing a home because they can’t pay rent could put Venezuelan families on the streets, fully exposed to COVID-19. If they do contract the virus, there’s little help available. 

Venezuela’s health system collapsed some time ago. Hospitals can’t meet even the most basic needs, let alone an unknown virus. The pandemic threatens to compound an already dire situation. 

“I read there are only 300 ventilators in the entire country,” says Elizabeth. “That’s nothing.”

Cash transfers: a proven solution  

So, from her home in Canada, Elizabeth is helping World Vision teams in Venezuela to ramp up an emergency response approach proven to work – even from a distance: cash transfers. 

“Almost every Venezuelan has a cell phone,” says Elizabeth. “That makes cash transfers an efficient way for World Vision to provide emergency aid.”

World Vision’s cash transfer method is well-established in Venezuela, she explains. Even before coronavirus, it was an effective, dignified way to provide help. 

“It allows people to keep their dignity, shopping for their own items instead of lining up at food distributions,” says Elizabeth. “Before COVID-19, it meant parents could be caring for their families, instead of spending all day in a crowded line.”

A crowd of people wait to receive food aid.More traditional food distributions, like this one in Uganda a few years ago, can mean people are crowded together as they arrive for their supplies. Such large groups are dangerous in the era of the coronavirus. Photo: Aggrey Nyondwa 

In the case of COVID-19, families can also spend the money on cleaning supplies that can stop the virus’ spread. 

Market studies conducted by World Vision show that families spend 60 per cent of cash transfer payments on food. The rest goes for rent, medicine and other necessities. 

“Having these cash payments means parents can stay safely at home instead of going to work, contracting COVID-19 then spreading it to their children,” says Elizabeth. 

When support networks are illegal 

Cash transfers can be critical when the social networks supporting vulnerable children break down. 
World Vision recently reported that approximately 1 million Venezuelan children are now at risk of exploitation, due to strict COVID-19 prevention measures. 

“Schools, children’s clubs and feeding centres have been ordered to close because of coronavirus,” says Elizabeth. “The teachers, religious leaders and aid workers who normally keep a close eye on children are no longer able to do that.”

In the past, World Vision has helped care for Venezuelans through feeding centres like this one in Peru, where Venezuelan migrants can come for a meal. But when gathering in groups is dangerous, so are feeding centres. 

A woman feeds her baby while a woman and a man work preparing food at a small restaurant.Venezuelans living as refugees in countries like Peru are vulnerable in other ways as the coronavirus threat increases globally. Many don’t have permanent homes in which to self-isolate. And without support from places like this World Vision feeding centre, they may go hungry without measures like cash transfers. Photo: Chris Huber 

“That’s why taking aid delivery digital is increasingly important in Latin America,” says Elizabeth. 
“Instead of going to monitor children, we can send texts to their caregivers, checking in on them regularly. Many of these abandoned children are living with other family members, like grandparents, aunts or uncles.

“If we can help them financially with cash transfers, and receive regular updates on their progress, we’re doing more than we’d otherwise be able to do.” 

Protecting staff is critical 

This approach also helps keep World Vision Venezuela staff and their families safe – allowing them to remain home while still caring for numerous children. That is where Elizabeth comes in. 

A World Vision staff member plays with a baby at the Colombia/Venezuela border.World Vision Venezuela staff are usually able to work face-to-face with children and families, but that’s not possible right now. Photo: Chris Huber     

“From [here] in Canada, I’m working with these young workers, leading them in the ramp-up of this cash distribution system during the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Elizabeth. “I need to look after the staff, so they can look after the people.

“Instead of going to people’s homes, I’m teaching Venezuelan staff ways to check in, send grocery cards, ensure people are educated about ways to keep healthy and safe. It’s hard for everyone not to be interacting directly with the children. But we pray that it’s just for a short time.” 

And staying safe is about more than avoiding public spaces.

“Diluting bleach, for example, is very important. We don’t want people exposed to dangerous chemicals. Our staff are remotely educating people about the cleaning they need to do, in ways that are less toxic for them.” 

Less sleep, longer prayers 

Elizabeth Araniva’s work gives her a powerful way to support the children in Latin America she cares about so much. But that doesn’t mean she’s not losing sleep.

“For me, it’s so sad to see this crisis,” she says. “I wish for a peaceful solution for the political situation in Venezuela, so the country can support the people more effectively. Especially in critical times like right now, with COVID-19.”

“I feel like we’re innovating how aid work is being done during this crisis,” she says. “And we’re doing good humanitarian work. But still, I’m always asking God for protection for the children.”  

Learn how you can help children and families in Venezuela prepare and protect themselves from COVID-19.