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MCC programs well positioned to address COVID-19 threats

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Summary: MCC is well positioned through its ongoing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and food programs to address the threats of COVID-19 for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including people displaced from their homes.

By Linda Espenshade

As COVID-19 spreads and worsens, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) continues its worldwide work while attending to the health and well-being of its staff.

MCC is well positioned through its ongoing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and food programs to address the threats of COVID-19 for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including people displaced from their homes. In times of crisis, those who are most vulnerable suffer the most. Where possible, MCC is scaling up this work.

Many MCC partner organizations bolster health efforts by providing training about nutrition, hygiene and disease prevention; and by strengthening access to food and clean water. MCC also supports several hospitals and clinics that serve people already at risk.

“Much of the work that MCC does around the world with vulnerable populations is helpful in a pandemic like COVID-19,” says Paul Shetler Fast, MCC’s health coordinator.

“The principles of MCC’s work in WASH are helpful across a broad range of infectious diseases, including epidemics like cholera, Ebola and now COVID-19,” Fast says. “Just as we here in Canada and the U.S. are being reminded to wash our hands and practice good hygiene to prevent spread, our WASH partners around the world are working on these same types of issues. This is a truly global pandemic impacting every corner of the world.”

To help people who have been displaced by war or other disasters, MCC sends hygiene kits and relief kits. Hygiene kit shipments are on their way to Jordan, Ukraine and Mozambique, says Bruce Guenther, MCC’s director of disaster response.

Locally purchased hygiene supplies will be distributed to displaced people in Lebanon, Syria and Malawi along with food packages that were already scheduled, Guenther says. To decrease the health risks to partner staff and volunteers who distribute supplies, MCC is providing locally purchased masks and gloves, adding extra handwashing stations at some distribution points and adapting distributions to ensure physical distancing.

MCC’s food distributions and agricultural work remain critical, Fast says. “Just as we in Canada and the U.S. are realizing the fragility of our supply chains as we see grocery stores emptied, our food security and malnutrition partners around the world are trying to ensure that the most vulnerable families can access the basic nutrition their bodies need to fight off a new pathogen.”

For example, 250 families living at Mubimbi Camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will continue to need food distributions to supplement the crops they can grow in fields rented for them by MCC’s partner Église du Christ au Congo (Church of Christ in Congo).

They need the nutrition, Fast says, because “people who are malnourished have weakened immune systems and are particularly at risk for COVID-19.”

One MCC-supported mobile clinic serves the people of Mubimbi and neighboring Poste Camp, where people went to escape violence from armed groups in their rural home communities. The nurses are equipped to help people recover from malaria and other common illnesses. Now they will need to be alert to any signs of coronavirus, so they can refer them for a higher level of care.

MCC also supports clinics and hospitals in other countries whose primary focus is on primary care, emergency medicine, maternal and child health, and HIV and mental health treatment.

“These health providers are on the front line as their communities are impacted by COVID-19 – not only helping in some cases with prevention and treatment, but also dealing with the rippling health impacts of the pandemic for vulnerable groups,” says Fast.

Yet the spread of the coronavirus is forcing MCC to carry out its ministry with less funding, travel and staff in some places.

Domestically and internationally, MCC staff are telecommuting wherever possible, continuing MCC’s work with partners and constituents virtually. Trainings and meetings have been canceled, postponed or moved to virtual events.

In some countries, such as India and South Africa, where governments have issued nationwide lockdowns, MCC’s work is limited. Getting canned meat and other supplies to nursing homes and hospitals in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been delayed because of a closed port.

MCC is not suspending or ending staff assignments at this time, but some participants in MCC’s young adult programs – Seed, Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) – have chosen to end their assignments and return home early. MCC is actively helping all personnel who make this decision, as well as those who remain.

MCC Thrift shops in Canada and the U.S. are temporarily shuttered, drying up funding that averaged more than $1.2 million a month in 2019. Ten relief sales have canceled or postponed sales this spring, events that last year brought in more than $1.7 million.

Material resources centers across Canada and the U.S. are closed to the thousands of volunteers who come each week to sew and prepare hygiene kits and other items for shipping overseas. Nevertheless, MCC has a three-month reserve of kits and comforters ready to be sent.

The 2019-2020 meat canning season ended in March instead of April, but with 500,000 cans of meat, enough to meet the requests from MCC’s partners for the next 12 months, says Tom Wenger, MCC’s material resources coordinator.

MCC’s work in Canada and the U.S. has been limited by the pandemic, but working with marginalized groups remains a priority.

In Canada, getting information about COVID-19 to refugees and returning Low German people, as well as monitoring the condition of remote First Nations groups, is ongoing.

Support continues for immigrants in the U.S., but without in-person consultations. Asylum seekers who have been released into the U.S. are still being given shelter through MCC’s partner, Casa Alitas in Tucson, Arizona, but connecting asylum seekers with family is becoming more costly because of the common need to re-book transportation.

Immigration education staff are refocusing public education efforts to webinars. The first webinar, scheduled for April 21, will share information about immigration and the situation at the Mexico/U.S. border. Information will be posted at mcc.org and on MCC’s social media.

So far, only a few centennial celebrations have been postponed or canceled, but organizers of alumni gatherings and other MCC celebrations will be following the advice of local health authorities and other government guidelines as the pandemic evolves.

“In the face of this challenge, we continue to see how all of us across the broad MCC community and around the world are interconnected beyond our ethnicity, faith, location and nationality,” says J Ron Byler, executive director of MCC U.S. “Despite the challenge of needing to come together when we are not physically able to do so, our commitment to face this crisis together remains strong.”

MCC is advocating with Canadian and U.S. governments to increase their assistance to people internationally who have been displaced from their homes, and calling on people of faith to encourage their legislators in this.

In addition, the MCC U.S. Washington Office is encouraging people to ask legislators to halt deportations of immigrants and to provide hygiene supplies for incarcerated people and compassionate release for the elderly.

Donations to support the ongoing work of MCC, including its intensified work in response to COVID-19, can be designated to “where needed most” at mcc.org/donate. Also, some material resources centers continue to accept donations of kits, kit supplies and comforters.

“Times of uncertainty call us to dig deeper into faith – to cast all our anxiety on God because God cares so deeply for us,” says Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of MCC Canada. “We believe this is a time to recommit ourselves to caring for our neighbors and acting generously – whether in our homes, across the street, or around the world.”

Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ

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Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.