Nearly three months since the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Sierra Leone, the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and their support NGO the Centre for Dialogue on Human Settlements and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA) reflect on actions taken to date and the challenges that still lie ahead in taking action against this pandemic.
This report provides narrative on how FEDURP has been involved in the fight against COVID-19 in their localities within Freetown Municipality, which is the epicentre of the pandemic. Their involvement has been driven by the institutional response strategy developed in collaboration with Freetown City Council (FCC). This strategy was generated using feedback and experiences of FEDURP and community volunteers actively involved in various activities to help prevent and mitigate the spread of the virus in their respective localities.
In early April 2020, FEDURP and CODOHSAPA consulted and put together a COVID-19 response plan as the pandemic was close to getting its way into Sierra Leone from the two neighboring countries of Liberia and Guinea. This plan constituted the following thematic pillars:
- Leverage existing partnerships with local authorities, such as Freetown City Council, to establish clear roles and responsibilities and clear lines of communication between government and communities;
- Adapt and deliver initiatives formulated within the national policy framework;
- Monitoring of community dynamics, including livelihood activities and movement of people in and out of their settlements; and,
- Enhancing contact tracing of suspected or positive cases within their communities.
To ensure that our strategy was better informed and relevant, it also capitalised on FCC’s COVID-19 response framework with three strategic pillars, namely;
- Behavior change messaging,
- Behavior change support, and,
- Isolation and containment support.
These two foregoing strategic pillars incidentally aligned with the strategic objectives of the SDI network with respect to Covid-19, namely;
- To provide community owned and validated settlement profile and mapping data to inform co-developed preparedness and response plans including logistics;
- Settlement level enablement of co-owned humanitarian assistance responses by means of leveraging existing social and political capital as a way to build two-way trust between providers and affected populations; and,
- To engage in monitoring and advocacy activities at settlement and city level in order to minimize threats of evictions and counterproductive closures of essential informal services during periods of lockdown or protracted national emergency.
Hence, the actions of FEDURP included; i) mobilization of community volunteers to focus on case and incident reporting; ii) development of sensitization messaging materials such as posters, handbills, and videos; iii) engagement in community sensitisation through direct community outreach and using various social media platforms to share videos and radio discussion; iv) provision of veronica buckets (for hand washing) and face masks; v) work with settlement-based local chiefs to enforce government regulations and practices; and, vi) engagement with state and local authorities to enhance government response to needs of informal settlements.
- Development of behaviour change messaging and information, education and communication (IEC) materials:
FEDURP and CODOHSAPA consulted various messaging materials developed by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS). The contents of these materials were customised to reflect the realities of slums and informal settlements. The messaging materials developed included visuals (posters and handbills) and audio-visuals (videos). This was done in collaboration with FCC and community health workers working in community health centres located in the informal settlements. The videos were done by the KYC TV team. One of the videos was done with the mayor in one of the slums (Susan’s Bay) emphasing the importance of handwashing and social distancing.
- Provision of handwashing facilities:
Five communities were supported with veronica buckets and soap which were located at strategic locations within communities. These provided facilities for handwashing, which helps to stimulate and enhance behaviour change in communities. Given that hand washing is the most basic practice to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the provision of these items has increased people’s awareness about handwashing practices as an important element to preventing the spread of the virus. These stations are monitored by young community volunteers to enforce the practice for passers-by and to replenish the water and soap.
- Production and provision of face masks:
1,250 face masks were produced by tailors who are members of FEDURP. 250 were directly distributed to community volunteers and 1,000 contributed to the 60,000 mask target set by the FCC to support vulnerable population in slum and informal settlements.
- Community sensitization and propagation of messaging:
Community volunteers drawn from the community-based disaster management committees (CDMCs) and FEDURP key participants engaged in community outreach activities, organising community and one-on-one sensitisation drives and distributing the posters and handbills containing customised messages that respond to the realities of slums and informal settlements.
- Working with FCC to reach out vulnerable population with food items during lockdown:
The federation worked with FCC to support a community kitchen targeting three extremely vulnerable communities namely, Cockle Bay (in the west end of Freetown), CKG (central), and Old Wharf (east end) targeting people with disabilities, the elderly, orphans, pregnant girls and female headed households with multiple dependents. This is to mitigate hunger for these categories of people who are limited to sourcing livelihood opportunities. Without such support, they are exposed to reinforced marginalisation and increase their exposure to contracting the virus and/or decreasing the chances of survival if they get exposed to the virus.
- Engagement with authorities to enhance support to informal settlements:
The situation of slums and informal settlements remains largely ignored by state institutions in responding to COVID-19. FEDURP volunteers have been engaging particularly with the Disaster Management Department of the Office of National Security (ONS) in which they responded by providing materials to these localities. Nevertheless, FCC has been quite responsive to the needs of slums and informal settlements. With focus on COVID-19, the engagement has also brought into view environmental disasters as the rains that are about to start, which often leads to massive seasonal and tidal flooding, rock or mud falls, landslides and more. There are speculations that if preparedness actions are not taken now before the rains set in it may beset the preventive measures and escalate the spread of the virus. Hence, the federation is pushing for environmental disaster preparedness. Another issue of concern is the militaristic approach to effecting quarantine actions in slums and informal settlements compared to formal or built up neighbourhoods. This has resulted in resistance and mistrust between communities and law enforcement. FEDURP therefore found it critical to encourage the relevant authorities to adopt more humane and civil methods.
- Development of case monitoring app (Freetown Informal Settlement Covid-19 Data – Fiscovidata)
This app has been initiated to ensure that incidents and issues emerging in slums and informal settlements are captured and reported so that their situation are not sidelined and to serve as the basis to inform key stakeholders about the realities of these localities. This was done in consultation with FCC capturing the perspectives of all parties. It also provides opportunities for the participants to improve data collection skills and sensitivity to the needs and realities of their settlements. (See the link: https://datastudio.google.com/reporting/e5255d5d-6553-49fa-b286-e46c49d296a4)
- Case and incident reporting:
This initiative constituted 126 data collectors spread across the 68 slums and informal settlements in which 48 are attached to the FCC ward-level community engagement structure using the aforementioned app, Fiscovidata, to collect and report cases and other incidents. Two levels of data analysis are done, i) community level data analysis that reflects the 68 settlements; and, ii) ward level in which incidents from these communities and other neighbourhoods within a ward are compiled to reflect the ward for sole purpose of FCC. Collecting and reporting on the cases and related incidents is important to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, as it helps to inform stakeholders of necessary actions that may address the needs of slum dwellers and informal settlers.
- Networking with State and Non-State Agencies
The fight against COVID-19 requires collaborative actions to build synergies and maximize the use of limited resources in the face of this global pandemic. The Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) has been responsible for designing appropriate IEC materials as well coordinating the provision of health services nationwide, including COVID-related mitigation and curatives. As such, messages we customized were derived from the approved MoHS resource base. At the same time, development and enforcement of protocols, procedures, and practices are undertaken by the Emergency Operational Centre (EOC). This has remained quite centralized, even though attempts are being made to decentralize its operations, making it difficult for CSOs to efficiently interact with the centre.
Collaboration with FCC has continued in order to maximize the provision of services and support. FEDURP/CODOHSAPA undertakes community mobilization and organisation as well as providing necessary data to inform FCC’s actions and service provision. This synergy tends to reinforce the recognition of slum and informal settlements as part of the municipal constituents, which by all indication precludes any foreseeable forced eviction in the course of the current situation.
FEDURP’s engagement with ONS saw additional provision of hand washing facilities in a few settlements and involved discussions on how both partners can begin to work on the actions to mitigate environmental disaster as rainy season is just setting in now.
A consortium including CRS, FCC, FEDURP/CODOHSAPA, CARITAS Freetown and Sierra Leone Red Cross has been constituted to seek funding from EU. By all indications, there is the possibility to win this grant which will target the slum dwellers and informal settlers, and special trade and socio-economic groups such as Traders and Market Women Council, Bike Riders Association, Tricycle (Kekeh) Drivers Union and Motor Drivers Union.
We are also working with ARISE partners to finalise and roll out the concept on our collaboration on the fight against COVID-19. This will focus on the following objectives:
- Improved community capacity to respond and mitigate the spread and contagion of COVID-19 in slums and informal settlements in Freetown;
- Enhance government’s COVID-19 response and mitigation priorities to reflect the needs of slums and informal settlements; and,
- Improve structures and practices for the collection and documentation of experiences and learning of COVID-19 response and mitigation interventions in slums and informal settlements
Some of the challenges we have faced include the following:
- The centralized approach poses the challenge of efficiently engaging with Emergency Operational Centre (EOC);
- There are huge needs, particularly in slums and informal settlements, but limited funding to respond adequately;
- Mixed messages has resulted in the emergence of myths and misconceptions in communities and the society generally about the Covid-19 virus;
- Periodic full and partial lockdowns seriously affect the livelihoods of slum dwellers and urban poor communities, as most are daily wage earners living on a hand-to-mouth basis. This is reinforced by the increase in the cost of food stuff caused by the ban on inter-district vehicular movement, which in turn affects movement of local food stuff from the rural areas where local food stuff are grown and at same time affect the marketing stock of the market women sellers.
Some of the lessons learned include:
- Our experiences from the Ebola outbreak was a capital for the government and local actors to draw from to design and plan for the fight against COVID-19.
- Ebola attracted a lot of funding from international partners, but the emergency of COVID-19 as a global pandemic attracted less support globally, which is an indication that nations across the globe were busy fighting their own scourge.
- The need for community participation has become even more important, as restriction on movement and enforcement of social distancing precludes others from directly supporting local actions.
- COVID-19 has stimulated ingenuity and creativity, such as the local fabrication of hand washing stations and face mask.
- COVID-19 has registered the urgent need for our government to invest in our health and other essential infrastructures as the ban on international flights has limited all of us (rich and poor, governors and the governed) to use our local health facilities as they have no second option of traveling abroad.
As the Sierra Leone SDI Alliance, we have identified the following as critical next steps:
- Focus sensitisation on myths and misconceptions.
- Data collection and incident reporting continues.
- Continue engagement with partners to seek other funding opportunities.
- FEDURP and volunteers to strengthen community monitoring efforts in collaboration with respective resident local chiefs.
- Continue engagement with state and non-state actors to strengthen synergies and enhance support to slums and informal settlements