Akbar Nazriev, Country Director of Ukraine, provides an update on how we are adapting our programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. HelpAge works in the Donbass region of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts), where an ongoing armed conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists has upended life in local communities. Most of the people who remain in the area are older people.
HelpAge has been providing home care in Ukraine since 2015. Today, HelpAge has about 160 community volunteers across 40 locations, all within 5 km of the line of contact. Volunteers provide home-based care and visit the older people they are assigned to twice per week. The older people who receive home care services are among the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Homecare beneficiaries have underlying health conditions and one or more disabilities. Many are also living alone and impoverished. Their family, if they have any, are either living far away in Ukraine or in another country. The armed conflict has socially isolated older people in the area. The COVID-19 crisis will only exacerbate this problem.
At the beginning of March, HelpAge procured personal protective equipment (PPE) for our community volunteers, including medical masks, rubber gloves, and plastic boot covers. Volunteers are required to wear PPE during homecare visits and have been trained on how to explain the protective measures they are taking to homecare beneficiaries. In the event that in-person homecare visits can no longer happen, we have a plan in place for volunteers to contact their homecare charges by phone regularly to check on their health status and well-being.
Through the homecare volunteers, we are distributing hygiene supplies and daily essentials, including toilet chairs, assistive devices, adult diapers, and urological diapers. We completed the procurement of 2,000 COVID-19 hygiene kits and are doing distributions to older people in need. Hygiene kits include wet wipes, toilet paper, a hairbrush, washing soap, toothpaste, a toothbrush, shampoo, foot balm, sponges for sensitive skin, and toilet bowl cleaner.
In order to meet the enormous need for home care in the area, HelpAge has been educating and delivering training to other humanitarian agencies operating in Eastern Ukraine. Because of these trainings, other NGOs have started providing home-based care, and we are collaborating through a system for referrals and case management.
Currently, HelpAge supports three community safe spaces, which are broken up into 5-6 social clubs. Before COVID-19, we facilitated activities including fitness classes, backgammon, embroidery, and knitting, all based on member interests.
Last month, we had to stop holding the community spaces because of COVID-19. Most older people were sad when we shared the news. In the meantime, we have distributed recreational kits to members that include supplies for doing embroidery. Because older people can no longer come together in person, we’ve set up a WhatsApp group for them to stay in touch and support each other. They take photos and share what they are doing at home via the WhatsApp group.
Advocacy and Awareness-building
HelpAge International in Ukraine has taken a leadership role in the age and disability technical group through the UNHCR protection cluster and coordinates meetings with 20-25 organizations to address issues affecting older people.
After the government declared a state of emergency on March 10, HelpAge has closed all our offices in Ukraine; staff is working remotely. Homecare volunteers continue to provide support via home visits where it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Humanitarian actors and the broader public often do not know about the challenges and risks older people face in this crisis. This is why our media awareness campaign and direct outreach to older people is so important. We have translated HelpAge International’s guidance for older people and care homes as well as advocacy materials into Russian. This information has been distributed to the UN protection cluster as well as the food security and livelihoods cluster. HelpAge Ukraine has provided inputs on how to make food guidelines and hygiene supplies coordinated through the cluster more accessible for older people’s needs. We’ve also printed and distributed 2,000 copies of our COVID-19 awareness brief and are developing a segment for a local oblast radio show to educate older people on how to avoid ageism and stigmatization during the pandemic.
A core part of our outreach is to older adults who are most vulnerable. HelpAge has developed a module on COVID-19 for homecare volunteers to deliver to 2,000 older people on how to protect themselves during the pandemic. Hand sanitizers have been distributed to all older people.