When The Wash Project began our work in 2011 in Ouelessebougou, Mali, the world was not facing a crisis on a global scale.
As COVID-19 stretches even the most well-equipped health systems to their limits, many countries across the Southern Hemisphere are just beginning the long fight ahead.
While countries with more robust economies are calling for the delivery of hundreds, if not thousands of ventilators, some reports suggest that there are less than 60 ventilators in the entire country of Mali, serving a population of 19.7 million, roughly the size of New York state.
Self-isolation is exceedingly difficult in communities such as Ouelessebougou, as the local economy depends heavily on the wages earned that day to buy the family's food. Many are farmers, day laborers, or sell goods in the market to meet their daily needs, all of which pose challenges to maintaining social distance. Many are forced to choose between the possibility of contracting coronavirus, or the near certainty of going hungry if they do not work that day.
Additional challenges come with the way many neighborhoods are structured. Many people in the community of Ouelessebougou, as in countless places across the developing world, live in communities where improvised housing and poor access to sanitation and clean water are common. If coronavirus were to infiltrate these neighborhoods, the results could be severe.
The community has taught us that the solution that will work best to prepare for the arrival of coronavirus in this fragile system, is to empower the villagers with information and basic supplies delivered door-to-door. In order to encourage as much social distancing as possible, we are collaborating with the most vulnerable families to provide safe water, liters of liquid soap, information about COVID-19, and reusable, washable masks made by local women.
For those who simply cannot afford to work, such as food vendors in the markets, we are prioritizing our mask distribution there. We've learned that the market activity will find a way to continue, simply because residents must have access to these essential goods. So, we're doing everything we can to equip those front-line workers with as much protection as possible.
Through the help of so many generous people, we were able to equip the Ouelessebougou Hospital with some critically-needed equipment to help keep health care workers safe in the weeks and months ahead. It is the only hospital in the area, and with worryingly low numbers of health care professionals in the country, protecting them has been a vital first step.
This photo, of Dr. Togo and Nurse Diakite, was a selfie taken after receiving word of the first suspected COVID-19 patient at the Ouelessebougou Hospital. The equipment had arrived from our project just a couple days before, and had we not been able to make that purchase, they would have been treating patients with far less than they need to protect themselves and the community.
The subsequent pages will be dedicated to this one community's response to a pandemic which has brought even some of world's most affluent health systems to their knees. As wealthier nations outbid poorer ones for critical protective equipment, we are dedicating our days to providing what we always have: the message that washing hands with soap saves lives, and then providing the tools and information to do so.