Keeping people fed, keeping people safe

How WFP is protecting refugees against coronavirus during food distributions in Uganda

Story by Petroc Wilton

A woman has her temperature checked before entering the food distribution point in Bidibidi. Photo: WFP/Petroc Wilton

It’s a hot, bright April morning in Bidibidi refugee settlement; the largest in Uganda, housing 232,000 of the 1.4 million refugees in the country, and one of the largest in the world. Mary Kiden, a refugee from South Sudan, is collecting her monthly food assistance from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). She has come to one of the collection hubs known as final distribution points (FDPs), where a series of new measures are in place to protect her and her community from COVID-19 coronavirus.

“At first, we were scared because of this new disease,” says Mary. “But we are happy with these new ways to prevent coronavirus and keep us safe.”

WFP provides food assistance every month to almost all refugees in Bidibidi and across Uganda through these FDPs: fenced compounds centred on huge tents stacked with containers of different foods, alongside spaces where large groups of refugees can wait to have their identities checked and any concerns answered. During distribution, there would usually be dense queues of people stretching through these facilities, each of which can serve thousands of people in a day. They have the potential to be a hotbed for the coronavirus to spread.

But this morning — just a few weeks after the first case of COVID-19 coronavirus was reported in Uganda — the scene here at Yangani FDP in Bidibidi is very different. WFP has put measures in place to help families to stay safe while accessing lifesaving assistance.

Starting from outside the compound itself, people wait patiently in short lines spaced at least two metres apart. A refugee community leader, equipped with a megaphone, guides each recipient in turn to the first of several hand-washing stations both outside and throughout the facility. There’s a desk at the entrance for mandatory temperature checking, with an isolation tent nearby where anyone with a high temperature or other possible COVID-19 symptoms can be re-tested (and, if necessary, referred to health partners and onto government medical authorities).

Every member of WFP or partner staff is equipped with a facemask and gloves, to help protect both themselves and the people they are serving. And all the way through the process, which is set up as a ‘production line’ so refugees can have their identity checked and then collect each of the allocated food items in order, careful spacing is maintained. In most cases this is done using simple practical measures, like chalk marks on the floor.

Simple chalk markings on the floor show people where to stand to maintain social distancing. Photo: WFP/Petroc Wilton

The process is a little slower than usual, but all of the refugees moving through remain calm and patient. WFP and its partners, including the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have been working with refugee leaders for weeks to explain to their communities that these measures will be in place — and why they are necessary.

“We appreciate the WFP measure of distancing when we collect our food. It helps to protect us not only from coronavirus, but also from other diseases,” says Eunice Sandy, a young school-age girl also from South Sudan. “And the hand-washing stations are very good as well.”

All of the new measures in place at Yangani, and other FDPs like it, were designed as a matter of urgency by WFP and its partners to help protect Uganda’s large refugee population from coronavirus. There’s a strong emphasis on avoiding any surface contact, which might pose a transmission risk. For example, the usual fingerprint or iris scanning — used to ensure each refugee is collecting his or her proper entitlement — is temporarily suspended in favour of scanning barcodes, on letters confirming the bearers are refugees or on their ration cards. This can be done safely at arm’s length.

Spacing between the refugees is also crucial to ensure there’s no congestion, which would present a risk of transmission through people sneezing or coughing in close proximity. Reducing the number of people served at any one time does mean it takes a few extra days to complete distributions for all of the 1.25 million refugees for whom WFP Uganda provides food. But it’s a critical part of minimizing the chances of coronavirus getting into, or spreading through, the settlements where they live — everyone is willing to wait a bit longer to ensure they stay safe.

All these measures are aligned with the national coronavirus response, led by the Government of Uganda and its Ministry of Health. WFP and its partners have been working closely since the start of the outbreak with both national and local government, ensuring efficient support for and integration with Uganda’s larger fight against COVID-19.

Hand-washing stations have been positioned throughout the food distribution points. Photo: Petroc Wilton

“When we heard news about coronavirus, we were able to get some directives from the national government Ministry of Health,” says Nicholas Lomoro, a refugee community leader on the ground at Yangani to help ensure food distribution runs smoothly. “Right now, we are not so worried, due to sensitization messages and awareness [raising] that are ongoing… we are so happy that people are able to cope with the situation, and we are following the directives.”

“People are aware [of] the new [food collection] system that has been adapted due to the existence of coronavirus in the country,” adds Nicholas. “As they come to receive their ration, they are not so worried; they don’t see [these measures] as a burden, but as a positive for the prevention of coronavirus. As they enter, they wash their hands, [then] they go to the medical desk to have their temperatures tested… this is the only way we feel we can be able to prevent the spread of coronavirus.”



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