In just 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the world and collided with existing epidemics, straining many health systems to the breaking point. The pandemic has exposed ugly inequalities, put vulnerable communities at greater risk, disrupted economies and claimed more than 1.6 million lives. No country or community has been left untouched.
At great risk to their own lives, health workers have stepped forward without hesitation to shoulder this extraordinary burden, all while continuing their lifesaving work in the fight against other diseases.
As we turn the page on 2020, we look at the incredible work of these hero health workers.
For Kiki, a transgender woman living in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the constant threat of violence and arrest while being stigmatized and shunned is part of everyday life. Diseases like HIV and COVID-19 expose the barriers and inequities that the most marginalized communities face accessing their right to health care. But these barriers haven’t held Kiki back from working and advocating to protect the rights of people in her community.
Lockdowns and restrictions on public transportation make it harder for many people living with HIV to access life-saving medicines and treatment. In Ukraine, the Global Fund supports an initiative by CO “100% LIFE,” a local HIV community network, which organizes courier services to deliver antiretroviral therapy and other medicines to homes via the postal service. People living with HIV in remote areas where postal services are not available are not left out either – their medication is delivered by car.
Malaria is the leading cause of death in Burundi. In 2020, health teams have spent months racing to ensure the country was prepared to protect communities from the disease despite the challenges of COVID-19. Thanks to the tireless efforts of community health workers, more than 6.8 million mosquito nets were distributed. The community health workers were at the forefront as mobile clinics were deployed to remote communities and indoor residual spraying was done in nine of the most affected districts.
Aftab Ansari spent years fighting for his life after being diagnosed with extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis. After taking treatment and through hope and determination, he fully recovered. But today he may be facing an even bigger challenge: helping others survive the same disease in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crucial role community health workers play as guardians of community health has come into clear focus as COVID-19 has accelerated across Africa. Over the years, community health workers like Evaline in Kenya have led the fight against killers such as malaria, HIV and TB. Now they have enlisted themselves to the fight against the new pandemic. The health of millions of people in Africa’s rural areas hinges on the social capital and trust built around these community health workers – many of whom are unpaid volunteers.
Ten years ago, more than 3,800 people died from malaria in Myanmar every year. Today, that number has dropped to approximately 170. Much of this progress has been made through the tireless efforts of 17,000 malaria health volunteers providing rapid testing and treatment and extending vital community-based education through national antimalaria campaigns.
“In the past, people would listen to us, but now people are scared," said Sewande Jekenu, a community tuberculosis worker in Nigeria. "They are not ready to give us their samples…some people don’t want to work with us anymore, they just send us away. They say we are coming to isolate them." In Nigeria, the misconceptions surrounding COVID-19 and tuberculosis – which can have some similar initial symptoms – are a new hurdle for health workers fighting TB.
Nombasa Krune-Dumile is a front-line health worker living with HIV in Cape Town, South Africa. After beating tuberculosis and COVID-19, she is back in the trenches, helping others overcome three diseases. Nombasa has an urgent appeal to governments and global health partners: “Health workers need training and more PPE to protect themselves and their families. That support is needed now.”
Isolated in their homes for six months, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and transgender people faced a frightening new reality of missing their lifesaving HIV services. Community outreach workers and local organizations like Fredy at the New Men and Women Association of Panama have stepped in to help with this challenge. They are using social media and digital apps to provide counseling and to direct people to safe locations for HIV services and testing.
Restrictions on movement and school closures – while successful in halting the spread of COVID-19 in Malawi – contributed considerably to fueling a pandemic of violence against adolescent girls and young women behind closed doors, threatening to reverse decades of progress in the fights against HIV and gender inequality. Grace Ngulube, a 24-year-old community worker and activist living with HIV, traveled across her home country to hear first-hand the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on adolescent girls and young women.