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In times of COVID, NGOs in Guatemala are adapting their methods of support to vulnerable populations

01 Jul 2020

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By Veronique Durroux-Malpartida, Head of the Information Unit in OCHA ROLAC

The COVID-19 pandemic has also reached remote and rural areas. In Guatemala, NGOs that were already working closely with communities have found new ways of continuing to provide humanitarian aid.

Soon after the outbreak of COVID-19 in Guatemala, authorities took various restrictive measures to avoid the spread of the virus, such as curfews, suspension of public transportation, and the closure of markets. These necessary measures have had an impact on the population, even on those living in the most remote areas of the country.

At the time the outbreak occurred, it was estimated that some 3.3 million people were in need of humanitarian aid in Guatemala, where 44 per cent of the population identifies as indigenous. The Humanitarian Needs Overview, published in March 2020, showed that high levels of poverty and several consecutive years of drought have led to high levels of food insecurity, especially along the so-called dry corridor, with 2.3 million people in situations of moderate to severe food insecurity.

The NGOs currently operating on the front lines in the country have adapted their activities to the restrictive measures implemented to contain the spread of the virus.

Remote selection of households impacted by food insecurity

From 25 April to 5 May, OXFAM, with the support of local associations, carried out the selection of households experiencing food insecurity in the Corredor Seco in order to provide food assistance to 5,000 people.

In order to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to the communities, it was decided to limit to the bare minimum the number of outside people travelling to Huehuetenango, Baja Verapaz and Chiquimula. Instead of the usual home surveys, interviews were done over the phone and eight temporary and distanced “phone booths” were installed. The interviewers conducted the interviews by phone from their homes, recording the information on an electronic form. In order to avoid large gatherings, these interviews were scheduled so that they were done every 30 minutes with a maximum of eight home representatives at a time.

Together with community leaders, it was agreed that the most vulnerable populations – those residents over 60 years old, pregnant women, and people with pre-existing medical conditions considered to be at high risk – would not participate in this process.

In order to comply with sanitation and hygiene recommendations, the associations made available hand sanitizer and disposable paper towels, and made sure to disinfect the cell phones after each call, as well as the furniture at the beginning and end of each day. In addition, those coordinating the activity on the ground were provided with personal protective equipment (face masks, protective eyewear and disposable gloves) and received an orientation on hygiene and social distancing measures when interacting with the interviewees. During the interview process, the entire area was marked out appropriately in order to guarantee social distancing of two metres, both at the phone booths and in the waiting areas.

Community face masks

For about a month, a group of entrepreneurs have been getting together to provide free face masks to the most disadvantaged communities in the department of Chiquimula. In these communities located in the Corredor Seco, the effects of COVID-19 go well beyond the risk of transmission. For many families, problems accessing food have worsened due to the shutdown in the country, such that buying a face mask, which costs about US$0.65 in the market, isn’t a priority.

“Seeing how complicated the situation was in the community, where some people don’t have the economic resources to purchase a face mask, we got organized so we could help those that needed it,” explains María del Rosario.

She is one of more than 320 members of the communities of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango and Chiquimula who are participating in the World Vision Guatemala/RTI joint Community Roots Project to produce 38,100 face masks and contribute to a reduction in the spread of the coronavirus. The project is funded by USAID and is being carried out in 80 communities and 20 municipalities.

Community Roots provides materials for the production of the masks under the guidelines established by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the project’s involvement and participation go far beyond that.

“We as a project deliver sewing machines to municipalities, so that participants learn the basic techniques in the fabrication of blouses, skirts, aprons, etc. Now, in the time of COVID-19, all these efforts are coming together to lend a hand to others,” explains the director of the Community Roots Project, Estuardo Dardón.

Distribution of food and personal hygiene products

In May, OXFAM, in collaboration with local NGOs and with financing from the European Union/ECHO, provided food assistance and preventive hygiene kits to protect against COVID-19 to 4,571 people in situations of severe food insecurity. These included citizens in 38 communities in 7 municipalities in the Departments of Chiquimula, Baja Verapaz and Huehuetenango.

The food ration – consisting of corn, beans, sugar, vegetable oil and fortified flour – was calculated for the number of members in each home, guaranteeing that everyone would have access to 2,100 kcals per day for two months. The articles of hygiene (soap, hand towels, bars of laundry soap) were also calculated so that people could adequately follow the hygiene practices for the prevention of COVID-19 throughout those two months.

The food distributions were undertaken by following a strict sanitary protocol to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Thus, the presence of external personnel in the communities was reduced, the work area was marked in order to guarantee and maintain social distance, personal protective equipment was utilized, and the conditions for hand disinfection using hand sanitizer were provided.

An addendum to the Humanitarian Needs Overview for Central America has also been published.

Photo credits: ASEDECHI, ASEDE Guatemala and Corazón del Maíz.