In mere months, COVID-19 has completely restructured our society. Even simple trips to the grocery store are riddled with ever-changing rules and regulations. Though it may seem inconvenient, these steps are incredibly important. In an effort to safeguard the most vulnerable, we must adjust our daily routines to limit our contact with others and combat the spread of this deadly virus.

Everybody, everywhere, is embracing the “new normal” and nonprofit organizations are no exception, especially those dedicated to improving public health among vulnerable communities in the United States and other countries around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting people living in poverty the hardest. The impact of this crisis has been staggering in places with weak health systems that struggle even in the best of times with severe shortages of health workers and essential medicines. Measures such as physical distancing, national lockdowns implemented by governments around the world, and dramatic travel restrictions are critical to preventing infections and containing the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic is also having a devastating “secondary” impact on people’s livelihoods and on the essential services that our Charity Alliance partners support, which is putting vulnerable communities at greater risk of poverty, hunger, and disease. That’s why the global health charity Helen Keller International is prioritizing efforts not only to safeguard communities from COVID-19, but also to support public health systems and minimize disruption to essential health services. Initially, measures imposed by governments and health authorities to stop the spread of COVID-19 required temporarily suspending about 60 percent of Helen Keller’s programs, including their vitamin A supplementation campaigns in Africa that save the lives of millions of children every year.

As the crisis evolves, in partnership with local leaders and governments, Helen Keller International is finding ways to safeguard its staff and communities from the pandemic, while also continuing its vital work to prevent vision loss, malnutrition, and diseases of poverty. Helen Keller International has adapted its services to continue its support for vulnerable communities despite great challenges.

Centering organizational priorities  
The pandemic is putting countless communities at risk not only of COVID-19, but also of a rise in other diseases and health threats such as malnutrition. People living in poverty need increased support to withstand the threats to their health and livelihoods. This means that now there is an even greater need for Helen Keller International’s essential programs to improve health and empower communities than before.

Whether they’re addressing preventable blindness and vision loss or working to eliminate malnutrition, Helen Keller International is an asset for vulnerable communities amidst the pandemic. As the need for their programs increases, so does their commitment to rise to the challenge. Their dedication to delivering life-changing health solutions where needs are great, but access to care is limited, remains at the center of everything they do, which is why they are prioritizing the following actions in response to the COVID-19:

  1. Safeguarding staff and communities from COVID-19
  2. Saving lives through existing health programs to prevent disease and illness
  3. Strengthening resilience

Despite the impact of COVID-19, Helen Keller International is more focused and dedicated toward their mission than ever before. They continue to do what is necessary to empower people in need — and now, what is necessary includes flexibility in their programs.

Let’s take a closer look at what this flexibility looks like and see some examples of the activities they are prioritizing in response to COVID-19.

Preventing disease
Helen Keller International’s COVID-19 response and some of its longstanding efforts to prevent and eliminate neglected tropical diseases go hand-in-hand. Public campaigns to educate communities about preventing infection through safe handwashing and other hygiene and sanitation measures are a key component of Helen Keller International’s efforts to protect communities from diseases of poverty — and they are a priority in their response to the COVID-19 crisis as well.

Communication — engaging in two-way dialogues with communities to ensure that people know the facts about how diseases are transmitted and that they help lead efforts to protect themselves and their families — is crucial to controlling and eliminating diseases. Where possible, Helen Keller International mobilizes community health workers to link people in need with vital health care services. These community health workers educate communities about ways they can not only prevent COVID-19 infections — but also diseases such as trachoma and river blindness.

Communication is just one part of it, however; It’s equally important that these communities have the tools and resources they need to stay safe. Helen Keller also promotes safe hygiene and sanitation, and improves access to clean water to improve health and prevent disease.

These seemingly simple solutions deliver dramatic results in places like Mali, Niger and Senegal, where many families living in poverty lack access to sources of safe water, soap and adequate sanitation.

Supporting hygiene and sanitation in vulnerable communities is a key part of Helen Keller International’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and its long-standing programs to improve health.

In Mali, Niger, Bangladesh, Senegal and many other countries, they’ve installed thousands of handwashing stations to ensure vulnerable communities have access to clean water and soap. This work is crucial in the fight against COVID-19, where evidence shows that simply washing your hands frequently with soap for the recommended 20 seconds can prevent infections.

Some of Helen Keller International’s program activities were less challenging to adapt in response to the COVID-19 pandemic than others.

Continuing their vitamin A supplementation programs was a major challenge. To avoid spreading COVID-19 and putting children and health workers at risk, national governments temporarily suspended mass immunization campaigns that required large gatherings of people and close contact between health workers and children. Helen Keller’s mass vitamin A supplementation campaigns were also temporarily suspended. Recognizing that this important program couldn’t be put on hold indefinitely, Helen Keller International adapted to meet the need by providing vitamin A supplements to children in health facilities through routine health care services.

Helen Keller International is rising to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic with flexible solutions that will help communities strengthen their resilience to this crisis and others in the future.