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Mentor Mothers on the Frontlines: A Spotlight on m2m’s COVID-19 Pivot

In an article originally published by Imago Dei Fund in the Inukshuk Blog, m2m President & CEO Frank Beadle de Palomo looks at how m2m pivoted to rapidly adapt our services to protect our frontline staff and clients from COVID-19.

Mentor Mother and client

m2m Mentor Mother with a client in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

“What gives me hope during this time is the fact that we did not go into hiding and wait for the pandemic to be over and then come back. No, we stood with our clients, we ensured that they received health services, we ensured that they stayed safe during this pandemic. As a result, we are going to come out stronger, better, and more knowledgeable.” – Wilbroda Akuro, mothers2mothers (m2m) Mentor Mother in Kenya.

Five. That is the number of ICU beds per million people across Africa, compared to an average of 3,400 in the United States. In many countries that we serve, the shortage of medical professionals defies belief. Mozambique, where m2m has been working since 2017, has only 3 doctors for every 100,000 people and more than half of Mozambicans must walk an hour or more to reach the nearest health facilities. It’s hard for those who have grown up in the U.S. or Europe to conceive of such shortages, especially in the face of pandemic. But that is why m2m’s Mentor Mothers have such a critical role to play as they fill in the gaps of healthcare systems further weakened by COVID-19.

Differentiating sub-Saharan Africa from the western world is a population of more than 20.6 million immunocompromised individuals living with HIV, according to UNAIDS. COVID-19 poses greater risks to populations living with HIV that are not on effective treatment. There are over nine million people throughout the continent who are not accessing effective treatment. COVID-19 not only infects individuals, it has been shutting down economies and services across the world. For individuals living with HIV who are on treatment, accessing their lifesaving prescription refills and viral load testing at this time is getting more and more difficult. Meanwhile, UNAIDS has recently estimated that—if HIV treatment is interrupted for six months—an additional 500,000 people could die.

Faced with these daunting realities, it is no wonder that COVID-19 has been described as a ticking timebomb for the African continent.

Mentor Mother and client

m2m Mentor Mother with a client at the Namulenga Health Center in the Mulanje District of Malawi before COVID-19.

m2m is determined to play our part as COVID-19 rapidly spreads across the African continent. The nearly 1,800 women living with HIV who are employed by m2m as frontline health workers called Mentor Mothers—like Wilbroda Akuro in Kenya—are standing by the more than one million individuals they serve each year across nine African nations. These brave women have been designated “essential workers” in countries under full, or partial, COVID-19 lockdowns. This designation means they are able to continue to deliver health services and education to women and families —not only about HIV/AIDS —but also other serious health issues including COVID-19. At this time, their support is more important than ever to make sure that families access vital health services, stay in care, and adhere to treatment regimens. Mentor Mothers also ease the load on doctors and nurses, so they can focus on urgent and acute medical needs.

m2m’s approach to the emerging health crisis has been two-fold: ADAPT and PROTECT.

We have rapidly adapted our services to address the new reality of COVID-19. This has meant dramatically altering or reducing face-to-face services, and a pivot to eServices. We are reimagining how we reach and serve clients using tools such as WhatsApp and phone calls to engage clients where possible, and developing new, interactive platforms which will be rolled out soon.

Mentor Mother and client

m2m Mentor Mother with a client in the Gauteng Province of South Africa.

In addition to providing core health services around HIV/AIDS; Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (RMNCH); paediatric case finding; and adolescent health needs; Mentor Mothers have adapted their expertise to deliver a new curriculum around COVID-19. Fearlessly, they help ensure those with symptoms access testing and health services.

Given the additional risks posed by HIV, we are also focused on ensuring everyone knows their HIV status and is adhering to treatment, if needed. HIV viral suppression is key to ensuring that those living with HIV are on equal footing to fight COVID-19. m2m already reports 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 ensure that COVID-19 does not wreak devastation through this extremely at-risk population.

Concomitantly, and a major priority for us, m2m is also taking steps to protect Mentor Mothers and their clients to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. We have implemented measures to promote social distancing and are equipping our frontline staff with personal protective equipment—no small feat across nine diverse countries.

Fear and stigma can fuel the potential devastation of COVID-19. However, m2m’s Mentor Mothers are essential role models in promoting truth, protective guidelines and behaviours, and flattening the curve. We have seen early success because of the trusted relationships we have built with those we serve. From the same communities and background as their clients, Mentor Mothers are a trusted source of health information—they are friends and sisters, and they are experts at cutting through misinformation and stigma to deliver lifesaving health knowledge and facts.

“One of the important things we have learned during the HIV/AIDS pandemic is the importance of providing accurate and timely information to reduce stigma and ensure people are tested and access vital health services. Educating our clients on how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 is key to overcoming this pandemic. I know that we will come out of this COVID-19 as champions as a result,” says Wilbroda.

Like Wilbroda, I am confident m2m and our Mentor Mothers will come out of the fight against COVID-19 as champions, as we have against HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS pandemic showed us how important it is to engage communities to disseminate accurate health information, promote healthy behaviours to vulnerable and remote populations, and link and engage individuals with health services. Each and every day, in their communities, Mentor Mothers are supporting women and families to stay healthy and safe during this current health crisis, while also making sure we do not backslide on the progress we have made in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic over the last 20 years.

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