Australia Awards alumni fight at the forefront of COVID-19 in Africa

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As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the world, bringing with it death, fear, worry and concern in the population at large, health care workers are at the frontline fighting the pandemic with everything they have. That includes Australia Awards-Africa alumni frontline workers. Seven alumni talk about their important work as well as their triumphs and fears with Palladium project staff in Pretoria and Nairobi. Each alum is making a unique contribution, including for communities at large and specifically for people living with disabilities, those with underlying health conditions, and those affected by the global economic and social order issues causing real mental and psychological health issues.

One alumna, Patience Komba, is an Associate Director in charge of Program Quality and Special Projects at the University of Maryland Baltimore, Tanzania. She is on a mission to protect vulnerable groups and people living with HIV against COVID-19.

“COVID-19 is a threat to those who have HIV around the world. It’s paramount to protect this group from acquiring the virus while making sure their routine health regime continues,” says Patience. “I play a role in educating the community, protecting those at most risk and making sure those taking care of these patients also take care of themselves and have access to as much education and support as they need.”

Patience completed an Australia Awards Master of International Public Health at the University of Sydney in 2017, learning a great deal about global health security and why countries need policies and surveillance systems to prevent, rapidly detect and respond to disease outbreaks. She also studied Epidemiology developing a valuable understanding of the causes of disease, their trends and patterns using real-time data and research evidence.

“My studies built my knowledge of how critical it is to protect people from global health threats such as COVID-19,” says Patience. “I learned how important it is for countries to have business continuity plans during outbreaks and pandemics so other health services aren’t overloaded and disrupted.”

Patience is coordinating HIV work across 11 regions of Tanzania, including that being performed through all regional councils and by the health care workers operating in 128 health facilities. She oversees continuity of services for people living with HIV and ensures patients and health care workers remain safe at health facilities and in communities during COVID-19.

“I lead a team of medical doctors, nurses, as well as social and environments scientists, playing a critical role in supporting departments and groups on many levels in their work fighting the pandemic,” says Patience.

In doing so, Patience works closely with the Quality Improvement and Monitoring and Evaluation departments of Tanzania’s National AIDS Control Program. She is also a member of the National Quality Improvement Technical Working Group and National HIV Quality Improvement Technical Working Group.

Dr Asma Awadh, a Medical Doctor and Head of the COVID-19 Response Team in charge of Westlands sub-county, Nairobi, Kenya, is leading 12 health workers in a response team operating at the frontline of COVID-19. The team includes public health officers, clinical officers, a counsellor, a public health nurse, and several other nurses.

Every day, Dr Asma oversees environmental disinfection in Westlands, supervises the team’s visits to quarantine sites, supervises the monitoring of symptoms and offers psychosocial support to those quarantined. Her typical day starts with a call from the Ministry of Health to discuss how to respond to suspected cases and emerging issues

“Cutting down virus transmission to overcome the pandemic with the least number of deaths and infections is key to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” says Dr Asma. “Health care providers, administrative authorities, and the general public are all important players in the fight against the virus.”

Dr Asma completed an Australia Awards Master of International Public Health and Master of Health Management at the University of New South Wales in 2016. While studying, she gained valuable knowledge and skills about infection disease intelligence, emergency preparedness and evacuation procedures.

The value of her Australian education and scholarship enrichment activities are not lost on Dr Asma. The knowledge gained during her mentorship and internship in disease surveillance at the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Centre for Research Excellence, Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response, at the University of New South Wales, are especially valuable with her outstanding work on the COVID-19 crisis. While at the Centre, Dr Asma developed in-depth understanding of systems research and collaboration, both critical components in responding to epidemics and pandemics.

Alumnus Dr Essam Said, a Medical Superintendent at Dagoretti Sub District hospital, Nairobi, Kenya, is rolling out preventive measures to protect hospital employees, patients and the community. Measures include sensitising the community on handwashing techniques and advocating for social distancing.

“With the support of the hospital management team and hospital board, we’re making sure preventive measures are implemented, including proper handwashing at the hospital entrance and social distancing through decongesting outpatient departments,” says Dr Essam. “We’re also helping to address mental health issues in patients suspected of having COVID-19.”

Dr Essam completed an Australia Awards Master of International Public Health at the University of New South Wales in 2018. He credits the valuable knowledge and skills he gained on investigating disease outbreaks and understanding challenges in infectious diseases to his fight in containing the spread of COVID-19.

From a mental health perspective, alumnus Philip Abepuoring, a Training Coordinator at Mental Health Authority, Ghana, provides psychological support to colleagues, clients, and their families in times of need. Philip uses his Australia Awards training and skills to complement his role during the pandemic.

“My training in psychotherapy has proven valuable in this pandemic,” says Philip. “I’ve become more aware of myself and how to manage my emotions.” says Philip.

A graduate of Master of Mental Health from the University of Queensland, Philip understands how stress and its consequences can arise from the physical and emotional demands faced by health care workers and the community. This includes fear and panic resulting from uncertainty about safety, panic attacks caused by information overload, and depression and mental disorders caused by the severity of the pandemic. Philip advises colleagues at the frontline and the general public on how to stay positive, including by eating a balanced diet, exercising routinely, maintaining strict hygiene and personal care, and getting adequate rest.

“Learning relaxation techniques can help people stay calm and positive, during COVID-19 and beyond. It’s time for those in lockdown to be productive and, for example, clean the house,” says Philip. “ They can also get creative with new activities like redecorating the house, writing a book or learning to cook. These types of activities help people stay positive, active and COVID-19 stress-free.”

Amos Ochieng’ Opiyo, County Mental Health Coordinator at Siaya County Teaching and Referral Hospital, Kenya, provides counselling services to those in isolation who are suspected of having COVID-19. Services include debriefing sessions for health care workers operating in designated screening and isolation areas.

The ripple effects of COVID-19 extend well beyond health care systems. Other negative repercussions are caused by economic and cultural impacts, restrictions to freedom of movement, human rights violations, increased risk of infection and disruptions to family functioning.

“These all add up and culminate in psychological distress which is damaging to mental health,” says Amos, an Australia Awards Master of Mental Health graduate from the University of Sydney. “We must put measures in place to mitigate the adverse effects of COVID-19 on mental health.”

Amos also says that people should not stigmatise those in isolation due to suspicion of carrying the virus. “It’s important to comply with ministry of health guidelines on how to protect ourselves, and others, from contracting or spreading the virus,” he says.

Alumna Maureen Maduagwu, a Senior Medical Officer at Rivers State University Port Harcourt, Nigeria, provides mental health support and raising awareness on COVID-19 in the university community.

A recipient of an Australia Awards short course award in Mental Health Care Management in a Public Health Context at the Queensland University of Technology, Maureen use her skills to mitigate the mental health challenges that are arising from the pandemic, particularly anxiety and depression. She also focuses on those who are mentally ill.

Through Maureen’s leadership, the university has set up a mental health care response action plan in its health services department. The plan is helping provide the mental health support the community requires during COVID-19.

Across the humanitarian field, alumnus Paul Mugambi is championing the course of people with disability, so they are not left behind during the pandemic. Working as a Technical Advisor on Inclusive Humanitarian Action at Humanity and Inclusion, Paul provides emergency response services on COVID-19 through remote technical support to humanitarian clusters, partners agencies and disability organisations.

“I’m fully engaged in developing inclusive humanitarian tools and offering technical advice to humanitarian actors to ensure the needs and priorities of people with disability are woven into COVID-19 responses. This includes raising the voices of the most vulnerable in society,” says Paul. “Beyond people with disabilities, we need to listen to the voices of internally displaced individuals, people with chronic illnesses and the elderly. These groups are often left out of in-service interventions.”

Paul graduated from the Australian National University with an Australia Award Master of Public Policy in 2019. While studying in overseas, Paul developed his public policy, research, writing and communication skills, all of which are now crucial to his work.

During his free time, Paul writes articles to advocate for better disability mainstreaming approaches in mitigating COVID-19. “I also share research findings and experiences from people with disability and suggested probable solutions to governments, humanitarian actors and the private sector on this far-reaching and fast-pace pandemic,” says Paul.

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