By Elie Mugabowishema, President of NSINDAGIZA Organization
COVID-19 made itself known in Rwanda in March of this year. The government was quick to respond, by setting up preventive measures and providing food to people who had informal jobs and using media to disseminate information. But older people’s heightened risk to COVID-19 was not clear in these media campaigns. Only general messages were given to communities.
We set out to make sure older people got the information they needed to keep themselves and their families safe from the virus. My organization, NSINDAGIZA, is run solely by volunteers, so I’m thankful to HelpAge International for their support in translating their guidance and advice for older people into our local language, Kinyarwanda. These tools have been vital for us, as there are so few tools available on COVID-19 and ageing.
During conversations we had with older people in the community, they revealed challenges such as: lack of means for medical services, lack of food, hygiene kits, protective equipment, and receiving limited information on COVID-19. They revealed anxieties about how they will make it through the pandemic.
For instance, one older woman, Epiphanie, told us: “I care for many orphan children who I am raising. They are hungry and so am I, and I have nothing to give them. On top of that, I have a stomach illness and liver problems; I have no funds to get the proper medicine after the ones I had depleted. A family member who used to support me is currently not working due to COVID-19. How do you think we can survive this pandemic?”
Epiphanie featured in a short video we created to raise awareness of older people’s concerns. I was so happy that this video touched the hearts of some who, in turn, supported NSINDAGIZA to provide food for 26 families. Epiphanie was able to feed her orphan children and get the medical services that she needed. I’m also thankful to the Rwandan Senate for considering the information we shared with them concerning older people’s problems – they even joined us in advocating to the government for the inclusion of older people in this COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, we organised an online conversation on COVID-19 and older people, where older people could express their views on the COVID-19 response face-to-face with the Government and other decision-makers. As an outcome, decisionmakers started to consider tailored messaging for older people, and the Rwanda Biomedical Centre decided to include a chapter on ageing in their Community Health Workers handbook.
In May, NSINDAGIZA was supported by HelpAge International and Age International to respond further to the issues that older people raised. We managed to secure wheelchairs for nine people with disabilities, and 81 families and two residential care centres received hand-washing kits, which included handwashing stations, towels, hand sanitizers and soaps. Hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus, but hand-washing in rural areas where there is no running water is almost impossible. These handwashing kits are a lifeline to older people and their families.
This opened the floor to local leaders who used this opportunity to educate the community on the importance of hand-washing and who are committed to mobilizing community health workers to keep following up on the implementation of these practices in the community.
But the battle is still ongoing. I’m still challenging civil society, donors, UN agencies and government to put older people front and centre of their COVID-19 response and in their strategies to build back better. The policy brief published by the UN Secretary General on the Impact of COVID-19 on older persons is clear enough and provides enough guidance on the inclusion of older person. It’s time for older people to get the attention they are entitled to.