COVID-19 in rural Madagascar
Mananara II is a small, rural village an hour and half walk away from Mahatalaky, in southeast Madagascar. Lomba, SEED's Head of Construction, was in the village with the construction team completing building work on a Primary School but became increasingly concerned that people in the community didn’t have any idea about COVID-19 and information didn’t seem to be getting to them.
When he returned to town, he explained his concerns, and last week Giona, SEED’s Community Liaison Officer and Paula, SEED’s Women's Livelihoods Coordinator, visited the village and talked with people about COVID-19, answered their questions and did a mask distribution from SEEDs Masks for Madagascar appeal.
What they found has shocked everyone at SEED.
How can they wear a mask when there are no masks in the community? How can they wash their hands when there is no soap?
Although the village is only around 30 miles from Fort Dauphin, the journey there takes around 4 hours. The first part of this journey is by ‘road’ – little more than wide dirt tracks – and then it is out of the car for the final 30 minutes walk to the village itself. However, even this has its challenges, as Paula explained “I knew it was going to be hard getting to the mountain village, but I had to wade through water 60cm deep as one of the thin plank bridges into the village was down. This is the dry season – so what will it be like in the rainy season here?”
Once in the village, Paula and Giona were shocked by the lack of information that had reached the 1,500 inhabitants. “People had no idea about COVID-19, what it was, if it was a threat to them and what to do about it” Paula explained. “Only two people in the village have a radio, so they had heard COVID-19 mentioned, but Giona and I were the first people who had actually explained to them about this”.
Paula and Giona held 10 sessions and spoke to around 200 people in the time that they spent in Mananara. They held sessions outside the newly built school, under the coffee trees and inbetween people’s houses in the smaller hamlets. They spoke with women who had small babies, teenagers and anyone who had questions for them – even one man who was 60 years old and who had never left Mananara. The situation left Paula shocked and close to tears. “I never thought that the situation would be so bad. There is not even a shop in the village, so if you want to buy soap you have to walk to the nearest market [2 hours away] on a Saturday and see if there is any soap there. Even if you can find it, it is often too expensive for people to buy. With handwashing with soap being the best attack on COVID, how are people going to be able to protect themselves?”
Her biggest fears are for those that sell at the market and those with small babies. For the market traders and those buying, there is no information on the protection that wearing a mask gives people and no one therefore wears a mask or covers their face. As Paula was speaking with people and people began to understand how COVID-19 is spread, they wanted to know more about masks and also they had concerns about physical distancing in the market. “We know it is impossible to physically distance in the market, but this is why here masks are more important than anywhere, as it is the only defence people have” explains Paula. Although Paula and Giona were able to provide 200 masks from SEEDs ‘Masks for Madagascar’ appeal, she thinks another 200 will be needed for people who are going to the market to trade each Saturday.
Her other concern is for mothers with small babies and breastfeeding. “There were so many questions on the safety of breastfeeding, but I was so sad because much of what I was explaining to mums on how to keep their babies safe was impossible for them. How can they wear a mask when no-one has explained the importance and there are no masks in the community? How can they wash their hands before breastfeeding and preparing food when there is no soap?”
It is hard in the rural communities where SEED works, but this is our home and we want to do more for those that we have worked with for 20 years. We’re now looking at how we can support Mananara, and other villages like this, by providing masks to market traders, masks and soap to pregnant and breastfeeding mums, and more information so that people know how to equip themselves in the fight against COVID.
After Paula’s report, she leaves us with one last thought from her time with the people from Mananara II, “If they don’t have us, they are lost in this world. We need to do more”.