Skip to Content

A voice for the voiceless during the Coronavirus outbreak

By March 11, 2020

A Q&A with Catholic Relief Services on how best to evaluate and mitigate risk

As COVID-19 dominates global headlines, vulnerable communities are often at higher risk where misinformation can stoke fear. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a nonprofit committed to assisting the poor and vulnerable overseas, is on the frontlines of the global health crisis. CRS has been a voice for the voiceless for nearly eight decades, operating in more than 100 countries.

How and where is CRS working to prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

CRS is gearing up its response in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Nigeria. Activities in those countries include risk awareness and hygiene education campaigns, as well as the distribution of hygiene supplies like soap.


Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases, whether it’s Ebola, coronavirus, or other contagious illnesses, as demonstrated by these children in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Credit: Lambert Coleman for CRS

In Afghanistan, where CRS had to suspend its education programs for children in camps, CRS is working with local health agencies to educate those families on preventing infection and is distributing 60,000 bars of soap.

In a time like this where misinformation can increase fear, especially in vulnerable communities, what is the best way to educate people and alleviate fear?

Access to reliable information is a key factor in battling misinformation. We address this with our own staff as well as the communities we serve.

For our staff, CRS provides timely updates and guidance on risks, ways to prevent infection and travel restrictions, for example. In many of the countries where CRS works, we have deep connections to communities and are well-positioned to start awareness and information campaigns, including in some of the most remote areas. For example, we’re not only distributing soap and hygiene materials in communities, but we’re also promoting clear prevention messaging through community meetings and distribution of educational posters and leaflets, which are accompanied by short orientations on virus prevention.

Given the urgency, how are you delivering services to meet global needs at scale?

Fortunately, up to this point the virus has been less prevalent in Central America and Africa. Should it spread further in those regions, we are able to activate far-reaching church networks and work through our local partners to provide services. These might include awareness campaigns and the distribution of hygiene materials. We also know from the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 that affected communities will need clean water and food, safe burial practices, and the engagement of local and religious leaders to help prevent the spread.

Catholic Relief Services healthcare workers

CRS has years of experience training healthcare workers on how to properly use protective equipment like gowns, gloves, and masks, like these health workers responding to the 2014 West Africa Ebola crisis in Guinea.
Credit: Michael Stulman/CRS

What measures are you taking to safeguard your staff?

CRS is monitoring the virus outbreak very closely and taking precautions to keep staff safe. We have suspended most travel that’s not mission-critical and have postponed some conferences. We are advising staff in certain countries and regions to avoid airports and high congregation places and have ramped up cleaning and sanitation of our offices. Continuing our work while keeping our staff safe is our highest priority. CRS staff are some of the most dedicated people, and if we keep them healthy, they will be able to go out and help others.

“The refugee, displaced, and war-affected populations we serve throughout this region have endured years of hardship and are particularly vulnerable to any new threat such as this virus, so CRS is working with local authorities, partner agencies and local communities throughout the region to support prevention efforts aimed at improving hygiene, awareness and knowledge of the disease.”
– Kevin Hartigan, Regional Director – Middle East and Europe

Personal protective equipment is essential for healthcare workers who treat patients with highly contagious diseases,

Personal protective equipment is essential for healthcare workers who treat patients with highly contagious diseases, whether they are responding to Ebola or coronavirus.
Credit: Michael Stulman/CRS

CRS has decades of experience with virus prevention and mitigation. What was your role in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa?

During the 2014 West Africa Ebola crisis, CRS and partners led intensive efforts to prevent the spread of the disease, running massive public awareness campaigns and working with religious and local leaders to prevent the spread of misinformation. Drawing on lessons learned during that experience, CRS is ready and well prepared to respond to a potentially growing coronavirus outbreak in Africa.

What prevention tips can you offer?

Our prevention tips are consistent with what’s in the news right now: regularly wash your hands with soap and water, sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

If donors want to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, where should they go?

Go to our website to donate.