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Partner highlights: Saving lives – helping refugees access health care in Uganda during the COVID-19 lockdown

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Yakobo Kahesi, a health worker with UNCHR partner Africa Humanitarian Action (AHA), sits with Burundian refugee Florence Uwase in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, during a home-visit © UNCHR/Yonna Tukundane

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world like no other crisis in recent history. With funds from Member States and other organizations as well as hundreds of thousands of individuals, who have contributed through the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, WHO is tackling the pandemic on nine dedicated fronts. But we’re not alone. In this series, we explore how our longstanding partner, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is contributing to the fight against the disease.

When Uganda enforced a lockdown in March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19, Yakobo Kahesi, 35, had to double his community outreach efforts to help sick refugees access health care services in Kampala. The Ugandan capital is home to over 90 000 refugees.

“As a frontline health worker, I made a choice to be out in the community and save lives,” says Yakobo. “But I didn’t stop worrying about the unknown.”

With a background in Public Health and more than 10 years of experience in working with refugees, Yakobo is currently serving as a Medical Operations Manager with Africa Humanitarian Action (AHA), a partner organization of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

With support from UNHCR and the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, AHA was able to help refugees in Kampala access primary health care, tertiary level care, sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS treatment and community health. Their work became even more critical during the lockdown, as patients faced additional challenges to access hospitals and much needed life-saving care.

Uganda hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan, DRC and Burundi. 94% of the refugees live in settlements in northern and southwestern Uganda, while 6% reside in Kampala. By the end of March 2021, Uganda registered 40 751 COVID-19 cases. Among them are 398 refugees, with 384 recoveries and 7 deaths. The Ministry of Health launched the vaccination campaign in mid-March 2021, aiming at immunizing 49% of the population, including refugees.

Throughout the lockdown period from March to May 2020, AHA provided patients with shuttle services from homes to hospitals and covered the bills of refugees requiring emergency treatment in private health facilities.

Yakobo recalls a time when he organized a hospital referral for Agnes, a 50-year-old Burundian who suffered from severe chronic back pain. “She had reached a point where walking or sitting was no longer possible,” says Yakobo, adding that she could not afford going to regular checkups as she lost her job due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“I am so happy we could help get to the hospital before it was too late.” She underwent surgery at Mulago Hospital in April and after several weeks, was able to return home. “We are still checking on her to make sure she receives the care she needs.”

Through UNHCR, the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund also helped AHA invest in awareness-raising activities, sensitizing refugees about COVID-19 risks and safety measures. AHA was able to increase the number of Village Health Team (VHT) volunteers to 230 and reach out to refugees in the worst affected urban areas of Kampala. These community-based health workers have played a vital role during the pandemic, sharing life-saving messages with the communities, reporting positive cases and contact tracing.

“I can’t hide that there have been many difficult days,” says Yakobo. “However, my day would always be made when I’d hear of the people we helped get to hospital, like a mother holding her newborn baby in her arms. Her gratitude at the support we provided makes it all worthwhile.”

Story by Wendy Kasujja in Kampala, Uganda 31 March 2021

This piece was provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and has been edited, updated and published with permission.

In June 2020, at the direction of the World Health Organization, UNHCR received $10 million from the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund — created by the United Nations Foundation, in partnership with the Swiss Philanthropy Foundation — to support its lifesaving work to combat the pandemic in some of the world’s most vulnerable places.

YOU CAN HELP

Every action counts in the fight against COVID-19. By supporting the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, you can help continued efforts to fight the coronavirus and protect the lives of refugees around the world. The Fund is the fastest and most effective way for individuals, companies, and organizations to support the work of the World Health Organization and its partners in battling the virus.