Protecting the Health and Wellbeing of our Frontline Staff and their Clients
As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to spread on the African continent, mothers2mothers’ (m2m) response is being driven by the needs of our frontline staff and the communities we serve. We are intensely focused on the health and wellbeing of the nearly 1,800 women living with HIV we employ as Mentor Mothers and the hundreds of thousands of individuals they support to access vital health services, stay in care, and adhere to treatment regimens.
It is essential that Mentor Mothers are able to continue their lifesaving work in the face of COVID-19. Some experts have called the virus a “ticking time bomb” for the African continent, citing the impact it is likely to have on already stretched health systems. Mentor Mothers relieve the burden on doctors and nurses, allowing them to focus on clinical care. Furthermore, many of our clients are living with HIV and more likely to be immunocompromised, which can make them even more vulnerable to serious health consequences if they contract the coronavirus.
m2m’s response to COVID-19 includes:
- Clients and Mentor Mothers First: Mentor Mothers are the lifeblood of m2m. In the face of the pandemic, Mentor Mothers’ work to keep entire families healthy and informed becomes even more critical. m2m is working to keep their environments safe, and we are examining changes in routine activities such as group sessions to better protect clients and staff from possible community transmission. (See below)
- Getting to Zero HIV Infections (and Undetectable Viral Loads): Since people living with HIV who are not on effective antiretroviral (ARV) treatment are believed to be at a much higher risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19, our work to ensure that individuals know their HIV status and are adherent to their treatment is more urgent. (See below)
- Our Ask of our Supporters: Much work lies ahead to protect our frontline staff and clients from this pandemic, and we strongly believe that m2m Mentor Mothers can help save lives and reduce the impact of COVID-19 in their communities. We ask for your support to help m2m Mentor Mothers continue to provide vital services during this unprecedented time. (See below)
Below are more details on the wide range of proactive measures m2m has put in place to prepare and protect our frontline staff and clients:
Clients and Mentor Mothers First
Here are some of the practical steps we have taken to support our team, both Mentor Mothers and office-based staff:
- Education: We have distributed educational materials widely, repurposing some from the World Health Organization (WHO) and creating our own video and factsheets. This has included a dedicated letter to Mentor Mothers on COVID-19 and living with HIV. These materials have been distributed through a variety of channels, including WhatsApp groups, in print, by email, and through telephone briefing. We have released our original content with no copyright restrictions and are encouraging others to distribute and share as we fight this pandemic together.
- Practical support: We have procured hand sanitiser for staff in many countries and are in the process of doing this in others. We are also purchasing contactless thermometers with the aim of having at least one available for each m2m office and site. Stock-outs are, however, making this challenging. In addition, we are looking into creating an emergency fund to pay for testing in areas in which access will be restricted without payment or co-payment.
- Working conditions and policies: We do not operate the health facilities most of our Mentor Mothers work from. Rather, we are collaborating with local authorities in each country we work in to understand what policies are in place for each site, and benchmarking these against our own best practices, to see if our staff are receiving adequate protection, and going further than national authorities where needed and practical. For m2m offices in countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19, we have switched to 100% remote working in many locations, and swing-shifts at other locations, where support staff are only in the office for two days a week. This helps to ensure social distancing. We have robust self-isolation and self-quarantine policies in place for staff who may have been exposed, whether through travel or exposure to a suspected or confirmed case.
- Travel: We have banned all non-essential travel, and domestic travel in countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19 is only being undertaken in vehicles owned by m2m with a maximum number of four passengers—we are avoiding mass modes of transport wherever possible.
Getting to Zero HIV Infections (And Undetectable Viral Loads)
Ensuring that those we serve know their HIV-status and are adherent to their treatment is a critical first line in defence against COVID-19. This makes the work we already do even more vital. COVID-19 is an additional risk factor in communities with already complex health needs. We already report exceptional numbers on adherence (in 2018, 94% of our HIV-positive clients were adherent to their treatment more than 95% of the time), we need to keep that bar high and reach more people with our services. Of course, we must continue to do all we can to prevent new HIV infections during this time.
We are doubling down and adding more frequent messaging and monitoring of viral load testing (including timing of tests and follow up with results). We are also moving quickly to test a tool which will allow us to continue to work with clients, even if a Mentor Mother cannot physically meet with them. We cannot risk backsliding on progress we have made in almost 20 years of fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, even as we navigate this new global threat.
We anticipate that in many of the countries where we work it will soon become too risky for our offices and sites to remain open for a period of time. As a public health organisation, we also appreciate the need to flatten the curve for this epidemic. Based on guidance from local governments and our internal assessment of the risk to our employees, we may have to make the difficult decision to close some offices and sites. For employees who can work from home, we have already begun rolling out contingency plans and remote working schedules. However, for our frontline staff, especially our Mentor Mothers, working remotely will be a challenge. We are working urgently on how we can change our delivery model to leverage our advanced digital health system and have Mentor Mothers support their clients remotely—for instance, we already have all of our clients’ phone numbers for monitoring and follow up. Our goals during this difficult period are to adapt our delivery model, while maintaining operations as much as possible so we are ready to spring back to full implementation as soon as possible.
Our Ask of Our Supporters
We need your support and flexibility in this critical time as we navigate this unprecedented global crisis. Your support will provide us with the flexibility we need to respond to the situation as it unfolds, such as piloting technology to enable Mentor Mothers to provide virtual support to their clients when necessary. Furthermore, your support can help cover Mentor Mothers’ salaries and benefits even if they are temporarily unable to work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Mentor Mothers are often the sole breadwinners, their jobs are critical to their family’s financial wellbeing. Our ability to maintain salaries and operational costs during this difficult time will make it possible to immediately get back to work in the aftermath of this crisis. Support m2m Mentor Mothers.