The coronavirus currently dominates all media reports and discussions in Switzerland. But what is the situation outside Europe? We interviewed three Helvetas staff members from three continents. They describe how COVID-19 is changing everyday life in Myanmar, Burkina Faso and Peru and what the local people are mainly concerned about. Part two of an extraordinary diary from our partner countries. Read Part 1 from March 9.
As if Christmas had been cancelled
By Peter Schmidt, Director Helvetas Myanmar
Many countries in Southeast Asia are stained "blood red" on the coronavirus map, which shows confirmed infections. However, two countries are white: Laos and Myanmar. Both countries border on China, but neither reports a confirmed case. How can this be? It's too hot for the virus here, colleagues suspect. Others believe that because the immune system of the population is so well-tested due to malaria and dengue fever, the coronavirus doesn't stand a chance. Or is it a relapse into a communist state communications regime: what should not be, does not exist? But the explanation is probably simple: relatively few coronavirus tests have been carried out to date - for a total population of 55 million people...
A week ago, the government reacted. After WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Myanmar cancelled all public events, including the Thingyan Water Festival in April. It is as if Christmas had been cancelled. The news was leaked via Facebook the day before and led to hamster purchases in Yangon. Swiss people also drove across the city to get hold of a few liters of Emmi milk at the "Marketplace". A touch of home in difficult times?
How can you meet rice farmers?
The ban on events makes the work of Helvetas Myanmar virtually impossible. How can our partner organizations meet with rice farmers? Can the apprentices whose vocational training we support still visit their training workshops? Can we open the new center for migrant women in a suburb of Yangon? Does the American marine biologist who advises one of our projects have to go into self-isolation because we do not want to introduce the disease into our project areas under any circumstances?
I followed the Swiss Federal Council's press conference online. It felt a little like when we were allowed to get up in the middle of the night to witness the landing of the Apollo capsule on the moon in front of the flickering screen. Federal President Sommaruga spoke emphatically in four languages. How do you think she would have managed in Myanmar with its 135 recognized population groups? In one sentence she mentioned that Swiss travelers abroad were invited to return home. The following morning, Helvetas Head Office in Zurich reported that international staff who belonged to one of the risk groups were urged to give serious thought to returning to their home countries. I am barely past the risk group margin. My wife is not. What should we do now?
Warning the population with radio broadcasts
By Franca Roiatti, Helvetas communications advisor for West Africa
The first death in Burkina Faso in connection with COVID-19 was registered on Wednesday March 18. The victim was the second vice president of the national parliament. It was also the first confirmed coronavirus death in sub-Saharan Africa. A shock. The number of cases is increasing, and the government has stepped up its efforts to trace contacts of people who have tested positive in order to stem the spread of the virus.
The government has closed schools and universities since the first COVID-19 cases, and meetings of more than 50 people are forbidden. Events such as concerts have been cancelled; Muslim and Christian religious leaders have cancelled masses and Friday prayers in the mosques and called on people "to pray at home". Authorities and NGOs are working with local radio stations to spread important information about the coronavirus throughout the country. Will the message get through? There are at least 125 health centers throughout Burkina Faso, which are closed due to the increasing number of armed attacks. Who will provide the most basic care in these areas?
Suddenly we're potential carriers
In the capital Ouagadougou there is still a lot of activity: there are many motorcycles on the streets, a few more riders are now wearing fabric masks to protect against dust, and some are wearing surgical masks. As before, practically nobody wears a helmet. Big shops have introduced preventive measures (hand gel at the entrance, masks for the staff), but small shops, cafés and shops at the roadside are functioning as usual. It is almost inconceivable that these and the many markets may have to close soon - as has happened in Europe. Many people live from hand to mouth and have to shop daily with the little money they earn. How could they stock up when the markets close?
And what about us? Helvetas staff have started - as far as possible - working from home and avoiding personal meetings. But: we work with and for people, and so difficult questions arise. For example, we have recently launched an emergency aid project to help some of the 729,000 internally displaced people: families who were forced to leave their villages to escape the violence of the armed groups. The majority do not have adequate shelter, and the host community is struggling to provide basic water and sanitation. Under such conditions, how can "social distancing" and personal hygiene be guaranteed? Finally, how can we help these people when we and our local partners could be potential carriers of coronavirus? We try to adapt to the new conditions and learn what is feasible on a daily basis.
Unusual peace in Lima
By Kaspar Schmidt, Helvetas Programme Advisor Peru
It was quick: After the first case of illness in Peru was confirmed, the government began to prescribe initial measures. The Peruvian government has learned from the possibly too long slow reaction of many European countries: just five days after the first confirmed case, it closed all schools, one day later it banned events with more than 300 people and another day later it banned flights from Europe and Asia. The national state of emergency was decreed by the government on day nine. That means extensive restrictions on public life and closed borders. Shortly afterwards, the night curfew was added. The curve of confirmed cases of infection is rising day by day, the red circle in Peru on the world map of cases of infection is getting bigger - whether the rigid measures will curb the spread of the virus as hoped for remains to be seen.
It is unusually quiet in this otherwise traffic-stricken metropolis of Lima. From time to time a police car drives by and asks people to stay home via loudspeaker. At traffic junctions, security forces check whether the circulating people are demonstrably working in so-called system-relevant sectors. The otherwise busy park opposite our apartment is largely deserted. In this strange silence, we are happy to hear the voices of community workers who occasionally still work in the park or sweep the street. The queues in front of supermarkets, where practically only staple foods are sold, and WhatsApp chats are overflown by a mixture of information, encouragement, perseverance, false reports and humor - now part of everyday life in Peru. We, too, try our hand at home-schooling the children and working from home, like millions of other families around the world, and at eight o'clock at night on our balcony we applaud the health workers, security guards, community workers and all the others.
Concern for the less privileged
Last Monday we at Helvetas Peru switched to teleworking, a new form of work for most of our colleagues here. We are thinking about which activities we need to postpone – and till when? How will the crisis affect the underprivileged communities and our partner organizations? For example, cocoa or coffee farmers or tourism companies? How can we help them to meet the challenges? Under an emergency regime with severely restricted freedom of movement, how can we handle the payment of support contributions to refugee families from Venezuela living in the port city of Callao near Lima? These are questions to which we need answers as soon as possible.